David Byrne — American Utopia ANALYSIS & REVIEW
The problem with listeners feeling the need to compare music with the musician’s past work is quite easily evidenced in the career of David Byrne. From once spearheading one of the greatest rocks bands of all time, to collaborating on some incredible ambient work, to writing one of the preeminent modern books on music “How Music Works”, Byrne is easily one of the best living musicians. He can ultimately do what he wants, and it’s not in anyone’s power to berate a work of music simply because it sounds completely unlike past projects.
On the other hand, it’s also not fair to have an inherent sense of apathy about a new work from an older musician, simply because you’re not interested in what they’re doing on the back end of their career. Indeed, since beginning to review new music, I haven’t a whole lot of overwhelming praise about any work from a musician who also happened to be active 20 or more years ago. Now, not to completely eat my words, but I will point out the peculiar amount of politically charged albums released by older, seasoned musicians, that don’t necessarily have a whole lot of compelling musical weight to them. There were the rather boring Depeche Mode and Neil Young releases, then Bon Jovi, then the more successful and interesting U2 and Roger Waters albums, despite never making any important breakthroughs. This latest album from David Byrne also sits in this pack, but near the higher end of quality.
Much of this was thanks to Byrne’s well done sonic restlessness near the end of the album, where experimentation with more reflective space and textural additions provided good variance and a needed transition from the more downtrodden acoustic beginning. The last three songs showed real character in their delicate, spacey sound, and not to mention taking some attention away from the less than stellar vocal layer. Aside from the first two songs, there was an obvious attempt from Byrne to not let his diminished vocal range hinder him from singing the line he wanted to put there, and that was mostly a positive. All it did negatively was make the actual vocal quality not as pristine or smooth as the music may have called for.
However, despite the second half jolt in creative sonic ideas, the timbre was the weakest element overall, since the rather obvious focus on acoustic additions such as brass and strings didn’t stay long enough to expound upon the overly basic guitar, bass, and drum tracks. It was certainly fine and listenable, though. To put it simply, this was the result of a smart musician putting enough effort into making something sound enjoyable enough, then just moving on to spend more time on the big picture ideas. It doesn’t necessarily enthrall me, but it should be enough for most everyone, whether you personally enjoy more traditional or experimental sound.
Only small flashes of Byrne’s melodic potential existed here, as the songs all had rather unique, appropriate, and memorable lines, though they most always stopped there and didn’t deliver any truly pleasing shapes or emotional movement. Only the song “Every Day is a Miracle” had an all-around compelling chorus, and with more thought on melodic direction over strict thematic delivery, there could have been many more. Again, though, nothing was appalling or an outright failure, and these songs did capture a nice amount of familiarity with its congenial parts while throwing in an unexpected instrument or eye-raising harmonic shift. It’s a nice work to check out if you value the wisdom that musicians from past generations bring to the table, and won’t mind if only a couple songs actually resonate with you afterwards.