A warm statement from one of pop’s odder luminaries.
David Byrne’s wandering musical spirit has defined his post-Talking Heads career even more than his time with the protean post-punk legends. The sheer elasticity of his global tastes makes each release and collaboration a crapshoot, qualitatively speaking, with the intentional inconsistency of his sound making for compelling but frustratingly unfocused albums. American Utopia, Byrne’s first solo credit in 14 years, is fittingly shed of overt distraction, retaining his eccentricity but concentrating it around an organizing theme. The result is his most cohesive work in ages, and a surprising highlight of the year so far.
Byrne’s catch-as-catch-can approach to music means that he traverses wide stylistic gaps, often within the same songs. Opener “I Dance Like This” is a massive feint, gently rolling out on a descending piano riff as Byrne quirkily sings lines like “In another dimension, like the clothes that you wear” before it suddenly lurches into cod-industrial, complete with a chorus manipulated and stretched by electronics. The oscillations between twee lounge pop and shuddering, nervous dance music prefigure an album of clashing styles, yet there’s something about this awkward funk that is so classically Byrne, sounding nothing like the Fela Kuti-cribbing rave-ups of Talking Heads but nonetheless drawn from the same tetchy, white boy dance urge.
Elsewhere, “It’s Not Dark Up Here” threads blurts of jazzy guitar through paranoid, skittering beats that eventually spill into something approaching a boogie; “Every Day Is a Miracle” is sunny calypso so bright you can practically see sunbeams bouncing off the mallet instruments. “Everybody’s Coming to My House” even manages to update that aforementioned Afrobeat fixation, adding dubby textures to funky, propulsive drumming, as well as faint groans of saxophone, squeaking lines of guitar, Bootsy Collins space bass and galloping cowbell.
To whip these wild intersections of Western and global influences together, Byrne collects them around a pervading lyrical theme of optimism that suits his universal sensibilities. The artist approaches the concept of the album title sincerely, if with a fair amount of cheek. His goals and method come into sharp detail on “Every Day Is a Miracle,” in which he describes how, to a chicken, heaven would simply be full of roosters and corn. The implication of the statement is clear, that concepts of utopia are necessarily limited by our imagination and intellectual capacity, and that any failure to conceive of a perfect world is a fault of our own thinking, not of any inherent possibility for change. Byrne makes this point explicitly on “Dog’s Mind” when he notes “Now a dog cannot imagine what it is to drive a car/ And we in turn are limited by what it is we are.” “Doing the Right Thing” acts as an earnest update to “Once in a Lifetime,” finding the yuppie protagonist, perhaps humbled and sobered by age, recession or any other factors, now gazes over his normal life and feels an intense gratitude and a hope that he has earned his modest comfort.
As clear as this thesis is, Byrne can sometimes rend it abstract and ironic. “Bullet,” for example, is set to jaunty, percolating synths as Byrne merrily sings of a bullet passing through a victim’s flesh “on its merry way,” sticking with the object’s perspective to render a kind of Little Engine That Could narrative around the piece of lead forging ahead through obstacles. “Every Day Is a Miracle” includes ones of the greatest lyrical flourishes that Byrne has ever assembled when he contrasts his comments on perspective with the casual cynicism of “A cockroach might eat Mona Lisa/ The Pope don’t mean shit to a dog/ And elephants don’t read newspapers/ And the kiss of a chicken is odd.” That the artist manages to juggle such grim moments with the overall sense of joy and hope is a testament to his curious skills for unorthodox juxtaposition, and even the disparate musical styles of guest musicians like Oneohtrix Point Never and Sampha alongside old mainstay Brian Eno are subsumed into a larger, blissful whole.
Sometimes, Byrne’s earnestness leads to left-footed sentimentality, as on “This Is That,” where Byrne solemnly intones “Everything stops/ Everything changes/ There’s nothing special now” over a sluggish harpsichord backing from Daniel Lopatin. “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets,” with its muted electronic shuffle, sketches a simplistic portrait of immiseration using lines like “Many people, they can’t get in/ Many people they pay no mind.” Yet despite these stumbles, American Utopia remains one of Byrne’s most impressive achievements in decades, a logical progression from Talking Heads not merely in his sponge-like absorption of musical genres and leftfield collaborators but in that band’s narrative progression of a nervous geek gradually finding his place among others and reveling in the companionship. If he once gloried in his makeshift family, here Byrne feels a connection with the world, and if that makes for a more diffuse, less emotionally specific record, it’s nonetheless a warm statement from one of pop’s odder luminaries.