Sep 042008

You may recall David Byrne: Leader of Talking Heads. Intimate collaborator with the visionaries from Brian Eno to Twyla Tharp to Robert Wilson. (Would rock fans in the early ’80s have even known that the latter two existed if not for their collaborations with Byrne?) Curator of cool Brazillian and other music on his Luaka Bop label. If the name and face are still fuzzy, the following clip will likely ring a bell.

Whatever happened to that guy? I heard he’s put out some solo albums over the years. There was a good song from one of those albums in that movie with Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, and Scarlett Johansson. One day I almost bought the album that contained that song, but I sampled the rest of the songs and they didn’t come close to matching the generally strong album cuts on Talking Heads’ highly underrated swan song, Naked.

Talking Heads, “Ruby Dear”

Recently I was surprised and excited to learn that Byrne and Eno had collaborated on a new album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Visions of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts danced in my head! You can stream the whole thing here, but I wanted more. I was pretty sure this would be worth owning. Before I even listened to the stream I acquired the whole album.

David Byrne & Brian Eno, “Home”

The opening track, “Home”, was nothing to write home about. It sounded like a warmed-over track from Eno and John Cale’s mildly underrated collaboration, Wrong Way Up. This is not to criticize the Cale-Eno collaboration, because it’s pretty good, especially the songs Cale sings.

Brian Eno & John Cale, “Crime in the Desert”

The new Byrne and Eno album had to get better, but even the best tracks sounded no better than one of the few tolerable songs from Talking Heads’ all-around worst album, Speaking in Tongues. Beside “Burning Down the House” that album was a heaping bowl of plain spaghetti! What’s the point?

After 2 dozen spins of this new Byrne and Eno record, here’s my relative favorite song from Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.

David Byrne & Brian Eno, “Life Is Long”

Pass the salt, please.

So what’s the deal with David Byrne? Is this what he’s reduced to?

Isn’t this why God created David Van Tieghem? (And if God’s got a few spare minutes, can he design a better Website for the technically and innovative proficient percussionist than the one he’s presently got?)

What I find fascinating about solo David Byrne, and what I was trying to hint at in a recent thread on visionary band leaders ill-equipped to go solo, is his inability to find his voice as a solo artist after having among the most distinctive artistic voices (in the broader sense) of his time when leading Talking Heads.

Byrne’s first forays as a solo artist–or intimate collaborator, not including Remain in Light, which by many accounts is a Byrne-Eno collaboration more than a Talking Heads record, were promising. We all know about My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne’s first official collaboration with Eno. The Catherine Wheel, music he composed for a Twyla Tharp dance (or whatever–that whole world remains a mystery to me), is stronger than most if not all of the Talking Heads records following Remain in Light.

David Byrne (The Catherine Wheel), “His Wife Refused”

He also did the music for a Robert Wilson play, the CIVIL warS. The music Byrne composed was released as The Knee Plays.

David Byrne (The Knee Plays), “Social Studies”

These collaborations were from the early ’80s, an exciting time, when it seemed that mainstream and experimental artists were coming together on a weekly basis. Paul Simon launched mainstream collaborations with the likes of Phillip Glass as well as South African musicians and Chevy Chase. Laurie Anderson had a hit single. The Clash collaborated with graffiti artists and Allen Ginsburg. Peter Gabriel collaborated with just about everyone but the USC Marching Band. One of the leading lights in this period of cross-pollination was Byrne.

After Byrne had some time to regroup from his years in Talking Heads, I expected him to emerge in some new or interesting form, probably bridging the historical gap between Bowie and Beck. Surely he’d have soaked in his Brazillian stuff, hip-hop, new technology, and the films of Wes Anderson, then blasted into the 21st century to soak in the adulation due to him for helping to set the tone of modern-day popular art alongside resurgent early ’80s visionaries like David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. Instead, we’re occasionally treated to performances like this:

Maybe I shouldn’t have wished for all that postmodern synthesis.

Perhaps Byrne is the ’80s version of Ray Davies, a band leader with a very focused, particular point of view that, once honed to a point, was complete. Yeah, I know we all like a post-Great Period Kinks song or two – and someone’s bound to like one of those albums that the rest of us don’t – but where was Ray Davies to go? Would anyone have cared if Ray Davies made grand statements on God, Love, Yoko, and John Sinclair? Once out of the Big Suit, where did David Byrne fit in? Is there any going back to that young guy playing “Warning Sign”?

Has his post-Talking Heads career been an extended, subtle cry for help, like the post-Silence of the Lambs films of Jodie Foster? David Byrne, phone home.


  17 Responses to “David Byrne, Phone Home”

  1. David Byrne Produced an album by the Fun Boy Three, a post Specials/English Beat Project that starts off with a Go-Go’s cover (our lips are sealed) which is fucking awesome. The album goes on to touch on all manner of world beat type jams, which I normally don’t give a shit about, but in this case, are fantastic!
    Also, on an Ibiza House music comp I picked up recently, Byrne does a really cool version of a song called LAZY. Check it out.

  2. BigSteve

    To use the terms I used in the Lennon discussion, I think Byrne decided to make good music rather than great music. And he decided to be a human being living in the real world (see the last clip) instead of the alien freak he was in the Talking Heads era.

    I’ve enjoyed all of Byrne’s albums, but I really, really loved that early Latin album Rei Momo. I don’t think he could have stayed on that path, but while he was on it he really swung.

    The new album is cool. You have to accept the fact that guys like Eno and Byrne aren’t going to swing for the fences anymore. The focus is on more modest projects now, and I’m not sure I’d even want them to try to change the world at this point. That’s a young man’s game.

  3. dbuskirk

    Byrne has just completely lost it after he left the Heads. Like Westerburg (who I know has his defenders here) there isn’t a single recording from his solo years that has been able to hold a place in my collection. I try them out and then a year later I scan the tracklist and think “when will I listen to this again?”.

    On the other hand, Luaka Bop releases are always worth checking out (i.e. Os Mutantes and Shuggie Otis) and I’m always glad to see Byrne when he pops up in the media (he recently designed some beautiful bike racks for Manhattan). He’s given more to us in this elder statesman model than someone like Lou Reed has done by just recording bad albums ad infinitum.

    SPEAKING IN TONGUES? My favorite TH album btw, especially those Jellybean Benitez extended remixes.

  4. Mr. Moderator

    All three of you, so far, make great points. The fact that some of your points contradict each other does not take away from my appreciation of what you’re saying. The only thing I can’t get behind is db’s love for Speaking in Tongues.

    Keep it coming!

  5. I ain’t no scholar, but David Byrne also abortedly produced what I think is the B-52’s best release, “Mesopotamia.” It was a late discovery for me, but understandable: this EP was under the radar and after “Love Shack” I couldn’t give two beeps about the 52’s for 20 years.

    The guy is an abstract idol for me, for sure. I see him as having a natural progression in his career with a lot of overlap: band, success, production, art. In that order.

  6. In many ways, I agree with a lot that Mr. Mod. wrote. I truly believe that Talking Heads were one of the best bands of their day, so it’s a little dispiriting that Byrne’s solo career seems so… unnecessary. No matter how many genres he dips into or new wrinkles he uncovers, there’s something rather samey about the excursions. Or maybe he’s just being marketed poorly. It’s not like I’ve spent a whole lot of time investigating his solo works. But I listened to the stream of the new album with Eno, and thought it was a total snooze. Byrne’s career illustrates how easily it is go from bohemian and cutting-edge to pleasantly inoffensive in a Starbucks-Triple A radio kind of way. I don’t think he lacks a solo voice. I just think he got old.

    And, ultimately, I don’t think it’s surprising that this has happened. I too lump Byrne in with other ’80s-era totems of hip like Anderson, Jarmusch and Lynch. And of those artists, only Lynch still seems cutting-edge, partially because I’d argue he’s easily the most unique and successful of the lot.

    To Byrne’s credit, he doesn’t just make albums that no one buys. He’s got a lot going on, as an artist, writer, blogger, composer, former label head, etc. Talking Heads look set to gain a new set of fans with subsequent generations. I think Byrne recognizes that his day as a rock star du jour are long, long gone, and on the whole he’s found other rows to hoe. Mr. Mod, is the fact that Rocker-for-Life is no longer a viable career option really that surprising?

    Put me down for Team Speaking in Tongues as well.

  7. Mr. Moderator

    Good stuff, Oats. We’re basically in agreement. I have no real beef with Byrne doing nothing that interests me. It’s simply disappointing. For a while he seemed like he could do just about anything (excepting True Stories) and have it turn out at least midly interesting.

  8. Oats, I agree as well. Without a collaborator to bounce ideas off of, Byrne loses his edge fairly quickly.

    But Lynch being cutting edge? I’d say more trendy, in that sort of “making movies that have no real point” category. That’s not to be confused with the edgy, minimalist postmodernism of Jarmusch, who made Dead Man and Night on Earth in the 90s that tower above Lynch’s entire canon, although not as groundbreaking as Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law, and Mystery Train.

  9. Mr. Moderator

    That last Lynch movie that may not have ever been released in the US, Inland Empire, was really good. If you think it had “no real point” I can’t spell out the point I got from it for you – not because I’m being a dick but because it made a great impression on me on a level that I can’t articulate. I agree that Jarmusch has continued to put out some relevant, worthwhile movies. I’m not a Night on Earth fan, but Dead Man and Ghost Dog are right on for my money.

  10. Didn’t see that one. Stopped at Mulholland Drive, where Lynch crawls so far up his own butt that I felt it would be pointless to watch any further films of his.

  11. This might be a generational thing. Firstly, I’ve only seen three Jarmusch films. Secondly, I was just entering adolescence when Twin Peaks first aired, and it had almost as much of an effect on my psyche as The Beatles. While maybe Blue Velvet is slightly dated now, Eraserhead is still a pretty amazing, unearthly film. I am also a big Mullholland Dr. fan. I didn’t really care for Inland Empire, but I can’t help but admire Lynch for being willing to go that deep into his impenetrable dreamstate.

  12. alexmagic

    Byrne has the pedigree to be a distinguished candidate for President of Music.

  13. Mr. Moderator

    Sure, Byrne’s got the pedigree to lead, but what Rock needs most is Change. I’m backing Candidate Alexmagic the day we go to the polls. Byrne would make a good running mate – and he doesn’t have hair plugs.

  14. Maybe this isn’t the place for this, but I’m a high school junior and I just did an analysis of “Burning Down the House” that I thought you might find interesting. I was wondering if it’s any good. It’s on my blog, which is

  15. Mr. Moderator

    Welcome aboard, backorforth. Thanks for finding us and sharing. The particular post to which this Townsperson refers can be found here:

  16. Given Byrne’s approach to writing lyrics (he’s been quoted as saying that he’s more interested in how they sound than what they mean), I like your analysis.

    I thought that the refrain “Burning Down the House” is sort of a take off on the funk shout out, “The roof is on fire . . . we don’t need no water, let the m/f burn.”

    And then the line that always fascinated me was the line: “Shakedown–dreams walking in broad daylight.” The idea that we’re never sure if we’re asleep or awake.

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