By Jonathan Taylor
You put the needle down on David Byrne's new solo album, "Music for the Knee Plays," somehow expecting to hear the smart, blistering funk-rock that characterizes his recent work with the Talking Heads. Or you might expect the high-strung, intense rock and roll of his earlier work.
What you hear is nothing of the sort.
On "Music for the Knee Plays," spare, straightforward horns backed by a minimum of percussion play music seemingly inspired by Dixieland jazz, but with an anxious tension — and usually performed at a dirge-like pace. Periodically, Byrne's cool monotone creeps through with eerie yet oddly funny narration.
"(Talking Heads) is a vehicle for pop songs," Byrne said during a recent interview at Warner Bros. Records offices in Burbank. He speaks in a quiet, almost unemotional voice that covers what is obviously a well of emotions. "So if I'm working on pop songs I think, 'Yeah, that's where that should go.'
"Anything else I'm doing, anything fairly different, I do on my own. This ("Knee Plays") doesn't sound much like the Talking Heads at all," he says, an off-kilter laugh punctuating a point that hardly needs the emphasis.
The Talking Heads already has finished recording a new album, due out this summer, but Byrne's attention is elsewhere at the moment. The avant-garde artist in him wants to discuss "Knee Plays;" he won't talk about the group's new album at all.
The musical sketches collected in "Music for the Knee Plays" are Byrne's contribution to Robert Wilson's epic, confusing and trouble-plagued opera, "The CIVIL warS." Byrne's work was not intended to be pop music in any conventional sense, and it isn't.
Wilson conceived of "Knee Plays" as little entertainment spots between the larger acts of the show, Byrne says. In fact, the name was chosen because the pieces are "joints" between the main action, performed in front of a white scrim on the proscenium while the sets are changed.
The concept was inspired by the entr'actes of vaudeville days, and the music is also reminiscent of that era, in keeping with the historical tone of "The CIVIL warS."
"They seemed very old-fashioned," Byrne says. "I wanted to go against the synthesizers and things like that. I decided to go for something really spiritual in the American sense."
In fact, several of the songs are rearrangements of old Southern spirituals.
If Byrne sticks to traditional forms in the music, his inventiveness is exhibited in the decidedly modern spoken narration. Much of it is elusive and obscure — as is the rest of "The CIVIL warS" — but his distinctive sense of humor comes through on a few pieces.
Take the final track, "In the Future," in which Byrne makes some unusual predictions: "In the future people with boring jobs will take pills to relieve the boredom; In the future everyone but the wealthy will be very happy; In the future everyone but the wealthy will be very filthy; In the future everyone but the wealthy will be very healthy."
Byrne views himself more as an interpreter of modern culture than a creator.
"I don't sort of credit myself most of the time," he says when asked about his witty, clever compositions. "It's more like I've discovered this combination of words or discovered something that's really funny."
That quality of synthesis is evident in Byrne's other work. Byrne the artist — he is one of few mainstream rock figures with a legitimate claim to that title — makes collages from materials he finds around him. In the case of "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," the medium is sound; Byrne's future film project, "True Stories," is based on assorted stories in tabloid newspapers.
It's no coincidence that Talking Heads commissioned Robert Rauschenberg, the artist known for his assemblages of the debris of modern civilization, to create a special edition album jacket for "Speaking in Tongues."
But for all of Byrne's lofty, intellectual pursuits, he remains surprisingly simple, genuine, even friendly. There is almost a naiveté in the quiet way he sits and answers questions and a convincing enthusiasm in his discussion of his diverse creative career.
He chuckles a little when asked whether he believes people take him too seriously because of his experimental, highly creative work.
"This assumption that I don't have any fun, that I'm serious all the time or that I'm too smart for my own good, I don't feel that's true. Anyhow, it (the assertion that Byrne is humorless) doesn't happen as much as it used to," he says.
Byrne certainly lightened up his image in the recent Talking Heads concert film, "Stop Making Sense." The songwriter, who first attracted attention for a song called "Psycho Killer," spent part of the film cavorting around stage wearing a hilarious, oversized suit.
Maybe he had that big suit in mind when he admitted to enjoying his own work.
"When it works, I think it's pretty cute," he says, cracking a rare smile. "I think I'm pretty cute, pretty funny sometimes."