By Chris Dahlen
As David Byrne describes in his liner notes, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts placed its bets on serendipity: "It is assumed that I write lyrics (and the accompanying music) for songs because I have something I need to 'express.'," he writes. "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." Maybe because it's so obviously the product of trial-and-error experimentation, Bush of Ghosts sounded like a quirky side project on its release in 1981; heck, it didn't even have any "songs." But today, Nonesuch has repackaged it as a near-masterpiece, a milestone of sampled music, and a peace summit in the continual West-meets-rest struggle. So we're supposed to see Bush of Ghosts as a tick on the timeline of important transgressive records.
It mostly holds up to that scrutiny. An album that's built on serendipity-- on Brian Eno fooling around with a new type of drum machine, on syncing the hook in a tape loop to a chorus, on finding the right horrors on the radio-- can't score 100%. But even if you cut it some slack, crucial parts of the album don't sound as intriguing today as they once did-- namely, all of the voices.
The sampled speech from various, mainly religious, sources ties the album into a long and prestigious history of artists who used found sound, which David Toop capably outlines in the liner notes. It's still the secret sauce that provokes a reaction from the listener. But what reaction you have lies outside of Byrne's, Eno's, or your control. On the first half, where the voices are least chopped up, it's difficult to divorce them from their origins. A couple of tracks read as satire-- "America Is Waiting" sounds like Negativland with a way better rhythm section-- and others as kitsch. "Help Me Somebody" pulls a neat trick by turning a preacher into an r&b; singer, but the exorcist on "The Jezebel Spirit" doesn't raise as many hairs on the back of my neck now that taping a crazy evangelist has become the art music equivalent of broadcasting crank phone calls. We can't just hear them for their sound or cadences without digging into the meanings, and not everyone will find the meanings profound.
On the other hand, the rhythm tracks still kick ass 10 ways to Sunday, thanks both to the fly-by apperances of Bill Laswell, Chris Frantz, Prairie Prince, and a half dozen others, and to the inspired messing about of Eno and Byrne as they turned boxes and food tins into percussion. Tape loops are funkier than laptops, and the modern ear is so aware of the digital "noodging" of a sample to a beat that the refreshingly knocked-together arrangements of Bush of Ghosts are a vast improvement. At one stage of the project, they dreamed about documenting the music of a fake foreign culture. They largely pulled it off, and you can tell a lot about this far-off place from its music: It's a futuristic yet tribal town made of resonant sheets of metal and amplified plastic containers, that the populace has to bang constantly in perfect time to make the traffic move, and the stoves heat up, and the lights flicker on at night, and to coax mismatched couples into making love and breeding new percussionists.
The seven bonus tracks will provoke more arguments than they settle. The setlist of Bush of Ghosts has changed several times over the years, and the diehard fans will still have to swap left-out cuts that aren't resurrected here; most famously, "Qu'ran", an apparently sacreligious recording of Koran verses set to music, doesn't get anywhere near this reissue. The songs that are here include a few that sound almost finished, including "Pitch to Voltage", and others that would fit almost as well as anything in the second half of the disc. The last cut, "Solo Guitar with Tin Foil", features someone, presumably Byrne, playing a haunting tune on a guitar with an impossibly clean tone-- a fitting end to an album that, for all its transcontinental fingerprints, sounds strikingly free of impurities.
Though Bush of Ghosts was a link in the chain between Steve Reich and the Bomb Squad, I'm not convinced that this talking point helps us enjoy the album. However, Nonesuch made an interesting move that could help Bush of Ghosts make history all over again: they launched a "remix" website, at www.bush-of-ghosts.com, where any of us can download multitracked versions of two songs, load them up in the editor of our choice, and under a Creative Commons license, do whatever we want with them.
As I write this, the site hasn't launched, and even if it were up, I can't tell how lively its community will be, how edgy the remixers can get, and how many rules will pen them in. Nonesuch copped out by posting only part of the album, instead of every piece of tape they owned, and I suspect that the bush-of-ghosts.com site may just be a corporate sandbox for wannabe remixers. But I could be wrong; I haven't tried to submit my mash-up of "Qu'ran" and Denmark's National Anthem yet. What matters is that they started the site and released these tracks, and by doing so, they put a stake in the ground-- not the first one, but an important one-- for Creative Commons licensing, Web 2.0 album releases ("this is an album where you participate!"), and the culture of remixing.
And by handing over their multitracks, Byrne and Eno also make a powerful acknowledgement of their own helplessness. It is a basic but real fact of our time that sampling can work both ways. In the 80s, you could fairly make an argument that Byrne and Eno were the Western white men appropriating all kinds of Others, be they domestic and primitive, or foreign and exotic. Now the world can return the favor: Anyone can rip this work apart and use it any way they please, and you can bet that if some kid in the Third World sends a killer remix to the right blogger, it'll travel faster and farther than this carefully curated reissue. Byrne and Eno counted on a certain amount of serendipity in their studio; today, they can witness the serendipity of what happens to their killer rhythm tracks-- the ones they released, and all the others that people will use anyway. And the strongest message they could send is not only that they've relinquished control, but that they admit they already lost it-- whether they like it or not.