★★★★ CD: DAVID BYRNE - AMERICAN UTOPIA Byrne’s first solo album in 14 years is a muscular and quirky return to form
Believe it or not, it’s been 14 years since the one-time Talking Heads frontman’s last solo album proper. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like that because his interim collaboration projects always sound so very David Byrne. Even when he took equal billing with the formidably talented and highly individualist Annie Clark (St Vincent), it still sticks in the memory as a Byrne album with guest Clark. But anyway, here we have it, and it too sounds very much like a David Byrne album. Is this meant as a backhanded complement? Not at all.
For one thing, it’s not as sonically dense as that St Vincent collaboration (a brass band as the dominant harmonic presence can quickly bring on brass fatigue). There’s air and space in this music, when it’s not being busy with emotive samples and tricksy percussion. Perhaps this is partly down to Brian Eno (who gets a writing credit on all but two songs) providing launch-pad textures and rhythms for Byrne to extrapolate upon. The end results are actually more engaging than their previous get-together, 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.
But you probably want to know if Byrne has been Trumped? Well, obviously, yes. But it’s not obvious. If you came to this album not knowing it was released a year into the current administration’s grotesque reign, I doubt you’d be particularly aware of any specific anti-Trump rhetoric. And that’s how it should be. Intelligent artists don’t get bogged down in the quotidian, they just do their own thing and you read into it whatever you need to find there.
Byrne has recently been touring a lecture entitled Reasons to be Cheerful – and he wasn’t being ironic. And a tentative, nervy cheerfulness pervades every track here too – even the one that meticulously describes the blithe progress of a bullet through a man ("Skin that women had touched, the bullet passed on through") and ends with Byrne singing with chilling buoyancy, "It went it’s merry way." But hey, you don’t always have to go all angst-ridden and minor key to convey concern at the state of the world. American Utopia is a lot edgier despite the chirpy tone, than that long-ago previous one, Grown Backwards. It certainly is a reason to be cheerful. And we need such artefacts right now.