Among the frontmen of New Wave–classifiable bands who embarked on a solo career, David Byrne proved to be one of the most successful, prolific, and enduring. In this regard, the American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist joins the ranks and caliber of the likes of Gary Numan (Tubeway Army), Peter Murphy (The Damned), Sting (The Police), and Morrissey (The Smiths).
Born on May 14, 1952, in Dumbarton, Scotland, raised in Ontario, Canada, and then in Maryland, USA, Byrne was the founding member, principal songwriter, and lead singer and guitarist of Talking Heads (“Burning Down the House”). The American Art Rock/New Wave band was active from 1975 to 1991, releasing eight studio albums. While still with Talking Heads, Byrne had already started working on side projects with other artists, unleashing his first in 1981—My Life in the Bush of Ghosts—and following this up with several more until 2012’s Love This Giant.
Clearly Byrne still has lots of things to say and melodies to weave, so now he returns with yet another batch of thought-provoking, quirky songs. Released on March 9, 2018, via Nonesuch/Todo Mundo Records, American Utopia is the overall 10th of the studio albums that Byrne has released either by himself or in collaboration with other artists. He wrote the majority of the tracks with his long-time, frequent co-songwriter Brian Eno. The collection is the musical component to a larger multi-media project entitled Reasons to Be Cheerful that Byrne has planned to accomplish.
American Utopia opens aptly with the piano-led “I Dance like This,” which builds up dramatically from being a theatrical ballad reminiscent of Klaus Nomi (“The Cold Song”) into a Kraftwerkian, robotic experimentation. The slightly sinister monotony then flows seamlessly into the factory grind of “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets,” still employing the same Industrial vibes. Byrne’s general theme of positivity for American Utopia shines through in the ensuing “Every Day Is a Miracle,” which exudes faint echoes of Talking Heads’ very own “(Nothing But) Flowers.” Byrne then showcases his storytelling prowess with a short narrative in ballad form, “Dog’s Mind.”
The bit jazzy, ambient, and minimalist “This Is That” and the following strange, World Beat-flavored “It’s Not Dark Up Here” come across like a homage to the late “Starman” David Bowie (“Lazarus”), both in words and in instrumentation. The ghostly and spacey mood carries on with the subtly Tropical beat of “Bullet.”
“Doing the Right Thing” then takes the listener to a different dimension and more textured sonic sphere; a bit Progressive, a tad Art Rock, owing to the ear-catching string orchestration. With “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” Byrne finally takes the listener by the hand and leads him towards the dance-floor, as the horn-adorned track bounces and glitters with its Disco and Dance sensibilities. This is Byrne again in his most creative and genre-encompassing tendencies; another Bowie in-the-making.
Finally, Byrne concludes his latest pièce de résistance with the sparse, cinematic, and percussive “Here.” Here lies love. Here resides the hope that the world needs now, amidst all the human longing, frustration, fears, discontent, despair, and cynicism…in Byrne’s music…in his personal but also possibly global vision of utopia.
Gone were the days when Rock and Pop artists were generally looked down upon as nihilistic, self-centered, spoiled, and self-proclaimed idols of the generations that they associate themselves with. In the new era of interconnected ideals, shared sentiments, and universal dreams of hope and progress, many artists have proven that they are worth much more than how they are usually perceived to be. That beneath the Pop gloss and the Rock fuzz of their musical works are their viable ideas that seek to contribute to the betterment of the environment, their fellow humans, and the society at large. Byrne is one of such idealists and visionaries, and American Utopia is his latest manifesto. CrypticRock gives it 4 out of 5 stars.