David Byrne – American Utopia

David-Byrne-American-Utopia Album Review

Always earnest, David Byrne wants you to know that the title of his forthcoming release, American Utopia, is unironic and the songs contained therein touch upon possibilities, feelings of discontent and desire. Byrne’s usual brand of arcane storytelling coupled with sonically robust instrumentation is found throughout.

While there are some thematic throwbacks–let’s face it, the guy just loves to talk about houses and buildings–the overall feel of this album has a distinct modernity to its tales, beats and textures. There’s no getting away from pointed political statements in much of today’s current music and entertainment climate (e.g., look upward to the soapbox whereby Roger Waters pedantically wags his index finger), fortunately, the listener is spared any overbearing screeds–at most it’s something alluded to in the abstract. Music has always been fun coming from Byrne; even his most conscious and melancholy mood pieces never felt like a sermon in the form of a serenade. Due for a March 9th release on Todomundo/Nonesuch, American Utopia marks the quirky art-punk pioneer’s first solo LP since Grown Backwards 14 years ago. He hasn’t exactly been lying dormant though–there’s been collabs during that stretch with his BFF Brian Eno, Fatboy Slim and St. Vincent.

The opening track, “I Can’t Dance” is a disparate combination of piano balladry and Byrne’s unique intonation soon giving way to a schizophrenic rhythmic volley of sinister industrial-tinged choruses. The lyrical gem “…career opportunities… that you never had…” in particular jumps out in contrasting morose fashion to many a tale in the Talking Heads and Byrne solo pantheon, which tended to be told from the POV of upwardly mobile urbanites with the sky–or at least somewhere between the azure and the rooftop of their high-rise or brownstone–as the limit.

Longtime fans have come to expect a continuation of the Byrne-Eno marriage on subsequent solo projects with the same certainty as the sun coming up tomorrow; and the duo never disappoints, in form or content. The lead single “Everybody’s Coming To My House” is an up-tempo Byrne-Eno cruiser that, out of all Byrne solo material to date, most closely resembles any Talking Heads framework.

Songs like “It’s Not Dark Up Here” reveal perhaps a sense of the man’s own mortality and maturation (“there’s nothing funny about going to Heaven… and there’s nothing funny about love.”) The lush tapestry of “I’m Always Doing The Right Thing,” replete with cello riffing and layers of ethereal synth and organ, demonstrates that even in at this stage of Byrne’s career there’s still a determination to push stylistic boundaries–a comparable gradation to the Remain In Light/Speaking In Tongues arc and his early World Beat-flavored solo work. Not all the lines are a home run however; the collaboration with Oneohtrix Point Never for “This Is That” is lyrically bereft but redeemably teems with esoteric electronica.

In a recent statement, Byrne had this to say about the upcoming release: “This album is indirectly about those aspirational impulses. Sometimes to describe is to reveal, to see other possibilities.

To ask a question is to begin the process of looking for an answer. To be descriptive is also to be prescriptive, in a way. The act of asking is a big step.”

On the other side of the glass, Byrne went big for this project, teaming up with a gaggle of in-demand producers. In addition to Eno, also enlisted were the services of Rodaidh McDonald, Jack Pinate, Jam City, Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) and Thomas Bartlett (Doveman). American Utopia was tracked in Byrne’s New York City home studio with finishing touches to the recording taking place at facilities elsewhere in NYC and London.

The LP is one part of a larger multi-media project titled, Reasons To Be Cheerful, a tip of the cap to the late Ian Drury song of the same name. This spring Byrne will embark upon a tour which he describes as being the most ambitious live offering he’s undertaken since Stop Making Sense. The first run of US dates has already been sold out but take heart, appearances at Coachella and Shaky Legs festivals are slated with additional stateside tour dates likely in the offing.

With artwork by outsider artist Purvis Young, American Utopia is available for pre-order ahead of its official March 9th release date. Fans who purchase the LP through the Nonesuch store will receive an exclusive print facsimile of an early handwritten lyric sheet to “Everybody’s Coming to My House” plus an instant download of the track.

-Scott Dough

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