As even a casual reader of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of David Byrne. Hell, the blog title is lifted from the lyrics to one of his songs. In 1986 I bought my first album; a vinyl copy of Remain In Light, arguably the best recording in Talking Heads’ magnificent catalogue. Arguably the best recording I own (and I have a large record collection). I bought it on the strength of a mix tape that my friend, P, had made for me. It wasn’t long before I’d bought everything Talking Heads had released, plus the handful of solo albums and collaborations that Byrne had put out up to that point. And they told us that Home Taping was Killing Music.
Since then I’ve gotten hold of everything Byrne has produced; the mainstream releases, the mail-order-only stuff, bootlegs, demos and one-off collaborations on other people’s records. These days my need to be a completist has fallen by the wayside, except when it comes to David Byrne (well, him and Stina Nordenstam, but she’s not exactly prolific). I’m still genuinely excited when I hear about a new Byrne record (or book or tour). His music does everything I want from music. It makes me think, it makes me feel and it makes me want to shake my body rhythmically. Often all three simultaneously.
Because he’s really not let me down in a career spanning 33 years*, I’ve learnt to trust his instincts. So if he thinks that a double-album about the life of Imelda Marcos and Estrella Cumpas (the woman who raised her) with a different vocalist on each track and Fatboy Slim providing beats on about half the record is a good idea, then I’m more than happy to see where he goes with that.
And true to form, he’s gone somewhere quite splendid. Here Lies Love is a glorious record. I’m not going to say it’s better or worse than any other thing he’s done, but it holds its own with the best of his work.
Kicking off with the title track sung by Florence Welch, I finally have a song that lets me see what everyone else sees in Florence and The Machine, who — I confess — don’t really do it for me (“overhyped advertising jingles” was how I described FATM recently… but then, I tend to say that about almost anyone who allows corporations to use their music for consumerist propaganda). Byrne’s trademark “strings-and-latin-beats” form the basis of the track, but Welch’s soaring vocals and Fatboy Slim’s thumping bass create a truly ecstatic chorus that I defy anyone not to be humming long after the song’s over.
And it’s this fusion that elevates the record above pretty much any dance-pop out there right now. The vocalists all bring something wonderful to their songs, Fatboy Slim’s club sensibilities are evident throughout, but it never stops being a David Byrne record. There are echoes of Talking Heads all over the place (in fact it’s possibly the most ‘Talking Heads’-esque thing he’s done in years) along with the strings and latin percussion that fans of his solo work know and love.
It’s all there and it all works wonderfully.
While concept albums are often justly criticised for the triteness of the story they shoehorn into the lyrics, this one works superbly. Byrne is one of the great lyricists, despite his tendency towards self-deprecation in this area (“lyrics are just there to fool people into listening to the music”, he once said) and he’s really on form here. The story is deftly woven around the beats. And what a story it is too. Byrne is less interested in the politics than he is in the psychological factors that drove Imelda from her humble beginnings amid the poverty of the Philippine slums to the palaces and power of her latter years. As he says in the publicity for the record… “no, the shoes don’t get mentioned”… instead the focus is on her early life and the burning ambition it instilled within her. Her hunger for power along with her willingness to use her sexuality and sensuality to manipulate the men around her are the central themes here. And remember, those men included Nixon, Mao Tse-Tung and Colonel Gaddafi amongst many others.
While there’s a tiny part of me that’s a little disappointed not to hear more of Byrne’s vocals (he sings American Troglodyte and features on a couple of others including a duet with the breathtaking Shara Worden), there’s honestly not a single vocalist out of the 22 that fail to impress. Steve Earle is the only male voice (aside from Byrne) which perhaps makes his song, A Perfect Hand stand out a little further from the crowd than would otherwise be the case. But each and every singer is perfectly matched to their song. Tori Amos makes You’ll Be Taken Care Of her own, so after a couple of listens you couldn’t imagine one of the others singing it. And the same is true of them all.
Cyndi Lauper’s vocal on Eleven Days is oddly reminiscent of Prince during the good years. The dialogue / duet on Every Drop of Rain is utterly captivating with its description of slum life and the struggle to retain dignity while living on scraps and handouts
They called us garage people
Where we lived there, you and me
When you’re poor — it’s like you’re naked
And every drop of rain you feel
When it rained we slept on boxes
There was water all around
But the people in the big house
Never bothered to find out
No clothes, no bed, no jewelry
Sometimes I had no shoes
A typhoon came — the house collapsed
And the neighbors passed us food
Of them all, though — if I had to pick one — the ambiguous ode to repression, Order 1081, stands out with Natalie Merchant managing to sound plaintive and powerful all at once. A genuinely cracking track.
And all the while, Byrne and Fatboy Slim are turning these strange psychological ballads into music you can dance to. I’m utterly captivated by this record and suspect I will be for some time to come.
* He’s released some stuff that I don’t listen to very often, but nothing I’d consider bad.