Review: David Byrne grapples with the 21st century on ‘American Utopia’

David Bryne performs in 2009 (Flickr).

David Byrne’s work as a frontman for the New York band Talking Heads lead to some of the most influential pop music of the late 20th century. With albums like 1980’s “Remain in Light” and the groundbreaking 1984 concert film “Stop Making Sense,” Byrne established himself as a forward-thinking musical mastermind. “American Utopia,” Byrne’s latest project —  his first proper solo album since 2004 — might not be not be as innovative as his music with Talking Heads, but it presents a vision that’s still worth paying attention to.

The album’s title may sound ripe for some kind of postmodern irony, but Byrne swears otherwise.

“The songs are sincere—the title is not ironic,” he said in a press release for the album. “The title is not so much about a utopia, as it is about our longing, frustration, aspirations, fears, hopes regarding what could be, what is possible.”

Those hopeful aspirations seem apparent with song titles such as “Every Day is a Miracle” and “It’s Not Dark Up Here,” but Byrne’s lyrics remain abstruse. Take these lines from the latter song as an example: “Would you like to talk about it / Would you like to pull my hair / Plants have roots / But I don’t know if they’re deep enough to make me stay.”

Of course, these lyrics aren’t too far off from what Byrne was writing about with Talking Heads. And the music on “American Utopia” isn’t much of a departure either. The album mixes synthesizers and world rhythms in Byrne’s familiar art rock style.

“Everybody’s Coming To My House,” the album’s lead single and standout track, provides the best example of this. The song makes use of a breathy saxophone in the intro, a tight, danceable bassline in the verses and some frantic percussion in the chorus. Brian Eno, already credited as both a co-writer and co-producer on this album, is also mentioned specifically for this track’s “composition.”

Another notable song, the album’s opener “I Dance Like This,” bounces between soothing verses and an overwhelming chorus. “I dance like this / Because it feels so damn good / If I could dance better / Well you know that I would,” Byrne sings. The lyrics and musical change-ups help capture the complex feelings of Byrne’s vision.

“Gasoline and Dirty Sheets,” offers up the type of satisfying, melancholic groove Byrne has become known for. A later song, “This is That,” makes great use of some avant-garde electronics to compliment Byrne’s contemplative vocals.

But other tracks on the album, such as “Dog’s Mind” and “Bullet,” never push themselves into the higher realm of musical accomplishment Byrne is capable of. These tracks offer a few interesting lyrics, but they place Byrne’s experimental approach into a boring, formulaic mold, resulting in something dry.

The album closes, however, with the brilliant track, “Here.” Byrne’s lyrics  infuse the brain’s psychological processes with a mystical, life-affirming drive. Its music conjures up the most transcendent ‘80s pop music while simultaneously striving for something new.

Overall, “American Utopia” gives an interesting look into the current headspace of one the most important figures in American pop music. It may not be as good as “Speaking in Tongues,” but it’s still worth listening to.

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