By Tim O'Neil
In the West, anyway, the causal link between the author and performer is strong. For instance, it is assumed that I write lyrics (and the accompanying music) for songs because I have something I need to “express”. . . . I find that more often, on the contrary, it is the music and the lyric that trigger the emotion within me rather than the other way around. . . . All this as a contentious issue was resolved years later by electronic and hip-hop artists, whose music in many cases is either not played by them (in the case of hip-hop artists), or, like us, remains more or less faceless; electronic artists often use a variety of friends and singers on their tracks, and almost never ever sing on them themselves. In their case it became accepted that the author is the curator, and not the singer.
—David Byrne with Brian Eno, from their liner notes
I first encountered My Life in the Bush of Ghosts almost by accident, seeing it mentioned in passing somewhere in relation to the Talking Heads’ 1980 masterpiece Remain in Light. After I tracked down a copy I took the odd album to heart, listening to it repeatedly in an attempt to understand in just what ways this strange missing link had influenced the music that had come after. Then as now, the album remains strangely compelling if slightly bloodless, a fascinating conceptual leap into unknown territory that loses little importance for its status as an essentially inchoate entity. The recent Nonesuch reissue presents the album in as pristine a context as possible, allowing the listener to see the album in as close to the original spirit as the artists intended.
Whereas oftentimes My Life in the Bush of Ghosts has been described as “influential”, I think a better term would be prescient. Influence is an extremely tricky field to measure. There is no way to know just how many people heard the album and were directly inspired. It is easier to say merely that the album was amazingly accurate in its predictions. Whether or not it helped precipitate the subsequent movements (hip-hop, world and electronic music) for which it served as a vanguard, it was ultimately less a catalyst than an anachronism, an album out of time, the kind of artifact that becomes increasingly important in hindsight, long after its initial outlandish predictions have been vindicated by time and circumstances. Whereas it might have seemed odd in 1981, now it is accepted in even the most conservative quarters that sampling is ubiquitous; world music has entered the global pop marketplace and become more than simply an ethnographic concern, and the role of the musician has changed to reflect these technological and sociological realities.
On the face of it, it’s hard to accept Byrne and Eno as anything more than bystanders in the origins of modern music. Certainly, it would be hard to deny the importance of either the Talking Heads or Eno’s work with Roxy Music, David Bowie, or his own long solo career, but I think that My Life in the Bush of Ghosts captures an interesting moment in both mens’ careers, where they sat on the precipice between being active participants in the evolution of pop music and mere observers. The word Byrne and Eno use to describe their conception of the new paradigm is revealing: curator. There is something hopelessly passive in the term. Curators work in museums, preserving art and history so it can be passed down, in stasis, through to untold future generations. By definition they cannot be active participants. Would Orbital or DJ Premiere or Moby or Danger Mouse define themselves as curators? It’s an odd choice of words that reveals as much about Byrne and Eno’s preoccupations as about the music itself.
Because, let’s be honest: world music existed just fine before a bunch of upper-middle-class white record buyers decided to start paying attention to Fela Kuti and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Hip-hop was already beginning to bubble up from its regional origins before Byrne and Eno ever decided to play with samples. Although it probably didn’t seem like it at the time, Byrne and Eno were working against the prevailing cultural forces by seeking to capture the spirit of an ongoing evolution in a static medium. Artistic revolutions are created by bold, unselfconscious applications of will and exuberance, and in this regard Byrne and Eno were little more than lightning rods, attracting a heady charge from the contentious atmosphere that permeated their surroundings.
In this regard, it’s hard not to see Byrne and Eno as akin, in spirit if not in practice, to the same folk music curators who decried the influence of folks like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie on the art form of American folk music. By introducing popular recorded versions of regional standards, Seeger and Guthrie placed their own artistic stamp on what had been an ongoing and generational medium, essentially locking what had been a constantly evolving art into set forms that would be recognized in perpetuity. But even if Byrne and Eno were essentially correct about the pliability and plasticity of future musical forms—an amazing fact considering that there is no way they could have accurately predicted the invention of the sampler, let alone scratching, Cubase, or Pro-Tools—they were dead-wrong in predicting the demise, or even a weakening, of the link between author and performer. Just because music is plastic doesn’t mean that the economic and social systems under which music is disseminated is particularly pliable. They encountered this in trying to clear the samples that ensured My Life in the Bush of Ghosts stayed on the shelf for almost two years following the completion of recording. The permanence of recorded music means that the “causal link between the author and the performer” will never be eroded. Rather than contributing to an erosion between these distinctions, the digital age has ensured that every recording, from a full symphony to a three-second sample of an obscure funk bassline, can be tracked and litigated. Probably not the “brave new world” Byrne and Eno anticipated.
Listening to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts all these years after its original release, and many years still since I first discovered it, it sounds surprisingly contemporary. What was once inconceivably avant-garde has become dreadfully familiar. Sampling spoken dialect—as with the radio hosts on “America is Waiting”—is almost rote. The African polyrhythms that once seemed so exotic have been, more or less, assimilated into the language of pop music, such that it’s possible to draw a line between the violent funk of “Mea Culpa” and many branches of modern house. By means of comparison, there are in fact very few rhythmical possibilities that have gone unexplored either by contemporary hip-hop and R&B or avant-garde IDM. Any number of these tracks wouldn’t have sounded unusual on an early Autechre LP, or even cut, looped and placed under a Missy Elliot rap.
So where does that leave us? Coming to terms with an artifact like My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is as difficult as reading the future. It’s still possible to be bewitched by the album, if the listener can overcome the waves of self-congratulatory seriousness. It deserves a place in your collection, if less for any enduring importance than an abiding interest that serves as a testament, above and beyond any discussion of the album’s provenance, to Byrne and Eno’s sure-footed musical instincts. It sure sounds prescient, but at the same time there’s something almost painfully naive about it, like seeing the futuristic predictions made by people living decades in the past. Sometimes the general shape of things to come can be predicted with certainty, but it rarely comes to pass with the optimism our ancestors summoned.