By Stephanie Zacharek
In pop music, as in romance, you can be punished for loving something so much you want to make it your own. David Byrne learned that bitter lesson with his 1989 Rei Momo, songs written in the Latin styles he’d come to love, set against typically off-kilter lyrics. Latin-music purists were not amused: Salsa star Willie Colon, who collaborated on several songs, dissociated himself from the project, as if to say, ”How dare this rock & roll weirdo turn Latin music into his playground?”
Rei Momo may not have been authentic, but it didn’t pretend to be: Byrne’s oddball charm kept his love of Latin pop from smothering the songs. And on his new album, Uh-Oh, Byrne integrates musical genres with still more confidence. Instead of serving as a backbone, Latin inflections are marbled throughout the record. Styles that intrigued Byrne in Talking Heads’ glory days (funk, gospel, country) are worked neatly into the mix, proof that they weren’t just playthings he’d tired of. And nearly every arrangement has been burnished to a luster, thanks in large part to trumpeter-arranger (and Rei Momo alum) Angel Fernandez.
Byrne’s lyrics can veer toward self-satisfied cutesiness, but here even the silly ones usually work. In ”Now I’m Your Mom,” Byrne plays a dad explaining to his little girl why he has decided to become a woman. The line ”And if you take that decision/Then they will make that incision down below” may make you wince or giggle — or both — but Byrne’s silliness has a serious swagger. In the beefiest tough-guy voice he can muster, he acknowledges that a man who makes that choice has to be quite a man to begin with: ”You know I’m man enough/ Ain’t gonna run and hide/ My love is mighty tough/My love is mighty wide.”
Not every song on Uh-Oh is so embracing, or so goofy, but nearly all of them build an alluring tension: The funnier ones carry a hint of dread, and the more serious ones are tempered by waggish wit. In ”Monkey Man” — Byrne’s warning that humans are evolving backward — fat, grunting horns muscle their way through the melody like surly, overfed bodyguards. ”Something Ain’t Right” whirls along on a giddy current of odd whistling effects. But when Byrne snarls, ”Come on down, you old fart/Let’s see if you have got a heart” — which could be a taunt to a president, a dictator, or God Himself — his ripsnorting anger tears through the fleet melody like a volcano blast.
In ”Girls on My Mind,” Byrne is the adult whose hormones still languish in adolescence, and again you fear he might be too cute for his own good. But his reedy voice is his great advantage here — it’s as fragile as rice paper and, like a pubescent boy’s, threatens to crack at any moment. He sings, ”You may ask yourself, ‘Who is that guy/With the girls upon his mind?”’ as if girl-craziness were just another embarrassing affliction, like acne or dandruff. From the sound of it, Byrne’s got it bad, and not just for girls: He falls for pop styles like some guys fall for a pretty face, and he makes you see that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. A-