David Byrne brings cheer with vision of US “utopia”
Artists and scholars have been churning out dystopian visions since the rise of Donald Trump, but David Byrne is defiantly chipper.
The post-punk pioneer and former Talking Heads frontman wants to preserve some of the optimism from his youth, which infuses his first album in six years, “American Utopia”.
“I realised that I was getting increasingly angry and depressed about the state of the world, or at least where I live,” says Byrne. “But occasionally I noticed some things that made me kind of hopeful.”
The 65-year-old began jotting down “reasons to be cheerful”, which he has turned into a series of blog essays and public lectures in Europe.
Among his sources of inspiration – the Republican mayor of Georgetown, Texas, who, citing economic reasons, wants to shift the city entirely to renewable energy despite his state’s deep-rooted relationship with fossil fuels.
“American Utopia” began in tandem, with Byrne determined to look up despite the Scottish-born singer’s dismay over his adopted country’s direction under Trump. “I’m not writing songs about wind power or bicycles or educational initiatives. That would be hard to do,” says Byrne, who is prone to laughing at unexpected moments.
“I write more from the point of view of asking who we are and what kind of people are we. What am I – how do I relate to other people?”
The title alone of “American Utopia” marks an about-face of sorts for the New Wave pioneer, whose bellowing voice dead-panned absurdities in Talking Heads songs such as “Psycho Killer”, “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House”.
In “Bicycle Diaries,” his memoir of his love affair with cycling, Byrne wrote that when he formed Talking Heads he was “more interested in irony than utopia.” That evidently has changed.
“I think it’s not ironic,” he says of the “American Utopia” title. “I think it’s about the kind of deep yearning that people have for something better than whatever their current situation is, and a kind of hope that such a thing is possible.” Byrne’s reflections on the album about the American experience nonetheless remain full of abstraction.
“Dog’s Mind”, a dreamy mid-tempo synth ballad, starts off discussing the White House’s relationship with the press corps before Byrne sings, “We are dogs in our own paradise / In a theme park all our own / Doggie dancers doing duty / Doggy dreaming all day long.”
The album’s first single, “Everybody’s Coming to My House”, evokes a dance party with sax, piano and echoes of LCD Soundsystem, while “Doing the Right Thing” erupts in joy in a whirling synth solo.
He built the songs off rough tracks that had been composed by Brian Eno, the ambientmusic innovator and longtime collaborator of Byrne as well as David Bowie and U2.
Eno notably worked with Byrne on his first solo album, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”, a groundbreaking work for its use of samples. The 1981 album brought in West African rhythms and Arabic pop, presaging Byrne’s deep interest in world music that included founding the Luaka Bop label.
“I think we have stayed friends because we often talk about things other than music,” Byrne says of Eno. “So it’s not like a business relationship and it changes all the time.”
For “American Utopia”, Byrne is putting on what he calls his most ambitious performances since the classic 1984 Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense”.
The latest tour, which includes a set at top US festival Coachella, takes place on a sleekly minimalist stage, with all instruments portable and no cords, road cases or stagehands lurking in the corner.
“It’s all about us, and I don’t mean that in an egotistical way. It’s all about the performers – the human beings, the people making the music,” he explains.
Byrne, who became a US citizen before Barack Obama’s second election in 2012, says he brought along on a previous tour a copy of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic “Democracy in America” about the US experiment in its early 19th century.
He adds that he had long believed that the United States, for all its imperfections, “stood for ideas that were inspiring to other people around the world.” But with age, he felt greater disillu¬sion.
“So now I wonder – what’s left? Some of that hope, that yearning, is still there. And you won¬der, where does it lead?”