Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
It’s accurate, if somewhat misleading, to note that this is David Byrne’s first solo album in 14 years. However, he has kept plenty busy in that time by releasing work with a wide range of collaborators from old pal Brian Eno, to St. Vincent and Fatboy Slim. Additionally, he’s written a book about music, directed films and created the Reasons to Be Cheerful project. The latter, true to its name, concerns reacting positively in a divisive political and socio-economic environment. It has inspired this new collection of songs.
Like his output of the past decade, the ex-Talking Heads frontman’s “solo” release has plenty of supporting musicians. The sound is a textured combination of interesting if faceless and generally subtle electronic loops meshed with bubbly percussion, Afro beats, sitar, occasional horns and strings, all in service to Byrne’s instantly identifiable keening vocals. It’s a predominantly upbeat style, although, as usual with Byrne’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics, the concepts are oblique even if the words are sometimes simplistic. Good luck untangling the concept behind “Every Day is a Miracle” as Byrne sings, “The chicken imagines a heaven, full of roosters and plenty of corn/ and God is a very old rooster/ and eggs are like Jesus his son.”
The songs meander around nebulous verses led by Byrne’s oblique vision until cohering into a largely cheery, sing-along chorus. It’s a chilly, frequently stiff vibe that appears to be pieced together and non-organic. Some tracks such as “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” never get off the ground despite multiple layers of instrumentation. Others like “Everyone’s Coming to My House” lock into a Heads circa Remain in Light/Speaking in Tongues groove that feels both retro and fresh. Byrne’s nerdy singing is high in the mix, making the music seem like an afterthought. When he warbles something about “that’s when I use my cash card/ that’s when I think of who you are” on “This is That” atop throbbing, quirky beats, the effect is creepy, mechanical and more aloof than comfortable. There’s plenty of artsy posturing but little sense of the irony and playfulness Byrne exhibits in his best work. At times, it feels as if Byrne is trying his hardest to be himself.
Some tracks kick in after multiple spins, some don’t and if you harbored any reservations about the frontman’s geeky delivery and occasionally impenetrable ideas before, American Utopia won’t reverse that. On the contrary, it will reinforce those beliefs.
At a conservative 35 minutes, there’s little fluff. Still, some songs feel longer than they are and the sheer abundance of words is sporadically exaggerated and tiresome. Repeated plays help the melodies cohere but considering the gap between 2004’s Grown Backwards and this often disjointed, intermittently engaging set, the long awaited venture from one of modern rock’s most eclectic and hardworking architects is disappointing.