“Thank you, Nurse. Standby. Dang. 20 more hyphens! Quick!”
“Right away doctor!”
It’s a music review emergency. David Byrne has birthed another record, and operating on its 15 tracks (not to mention the surreal anecdotes and sketches decorating the liner notes) may prove even more challenging than his previous works. The talented dude — not satisfied with a decade of success fronting the Talking Heads, followed by several albums full of avant-garde fusings of world and popular music — has decided to crash the opera scene. The result is both amazing and nearly indescribable. Even milking the hyphen key dry won’t help me begin to classify this album.
Pop-opera? Post-orchestra? My attempts are ridiculous, and we’re just getting started. Four minutes into the album, Byrne somehow covers Lambchop and Georges Bizet back to back without a hint of disjointedness. Lambchop’s track is originally a rugged country-rock tune from 1996, and “Au Fond du Temple Saint” belongs to a French opera nearly a century and a half old. But when the drums of the second track fade away, and Byrne softly begins singing the third, the two seem like they should never leave each other’s side. Time and genre are smashed. Smashed!
Hyperbole aside, it really is hard to fathom the extent that Byrne’s song writing and arranging skills have developed since the eighties. His music may have lost the youthful punch of “Psycho Killer,” but his ear for blending electric guitars and violins, vocals and brass, theremin, cowbell, and even “kitchen implements” (on “The Other Side of This Life”), is at an astounding peak. And his lyrics remain solid and subtle as ever.
On “Civilization,” Byrne voices his frustration at trying to understand social habits. He first states: “Civilization, it’s all about knives and forks,” then laments that he never knows when to buy roses, or even when to ask for cream and sugar. While the lyrics reveal confusion, the music, led by John Linnell’s (of They Might Be Giants) mischievously gleeful accordion, is carefree and bouncy, suggesting that customs not be taken too seriously.
The sort of cheerful confusion apparent in “Civilization” is common throughout Grown Backwards. On “Tiny Apocalypse,” Byrne greets random annoyances with amusement. “In the event of pressure loss,” he sings over tender strings, “I will be laughing out loud.” On “Glad,” he lists the many things he’s happy about, including the fact that he has skin, that he’s full of doubt, and that he’s been wrong about so many things he thought he knew for certain.
Grown Backwards seems to promote a sort of peaceful yet defiant meditation, where you can defeat the discomforts of daily life by (paradoxically!) learning to take comfort in them. This doesn’t mean Byrne’s lost the unruliness of his earlier days, however. If you’re concerned, look no further than “Empire,” a sarcastic jab at our current political atmosphere. What really varies throughout Byrne’s long career isn’t the lyrics, but the music. Keyboards are replaced by strings, manic vocals are calmed down, and choppy chords smoothed out. Dude knows how to keep from getting bored. Yet while his instruments and styles change from year to year, his quirky outlook stays pretty steady. Meaning weird. Weird is good.
Rufus Wainwright – Want One
David Bowie – Reality
Talking Heads – Little Creatures