Album Review: American Utopia (Nonesuch)

Back in 1983 David Byrne sang about Slippery People with Talking Heads, 35 years later those people are still in power but they’re even harder to make sense of. Byrne’s first solo album in 14 years seems to be a reaction to the way that life has been thrown out of whack for many in the United States and beyond. There is a distinct sense of confusion in the ten songs on American Utopia but then again Byrne has never been one for a straight forward narrative. It’s taken him this long to make a follow up to Grown Backwards because he is always up to something else, be it scoring films, giving a TED talk on how music venues have influenced music in history or recording albums with Fatboy Slim and St. Vincent. He has also made plenty of albums with Brian Eno including the seminal My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and this latest release which is said to have grown out of some dance music tracks that Eno had been making, something that rings very true right from the off with the pounding drum machine beats of I Dance Like This. A song that harks back to Byrne’s idiosyncratic dance style of the Talking Heads era and explains “We dance like this because it feels so damn good” but delves a little deeper later on with “The truth don’t mean nothing if you ain’t got the cash”, a truism perhaps but not one often heard in song.

Gasoline and Dirty sheets is the obligatory social commentary track demanded of any card carrying American liberal artist, here a bouncy rhythm contrasts with lines that include “Vacuum packed don’t rock my world” and references to the many inequities of modern life. It’s not the most musically subtle of albums and lacks variety because Byrne’s voice is the dominant element in a mix that is distinctly hard edged presumably due to excessive use of compression and limiting. It feels as if it has been mastered for Spotify or one of its low bit rate competitors, the fundamental rhythms and vocal melody will be obvious via almost any medium but there isn’t much beyond that. There are some surprising lyrics to keep you entertained on songs including the chicken centric Every Day Is a Miracle, where not only “The pope don’t mean shit to a dog” but “The mind is a soft boiled potato”. Byrne does on this occasion seem to have realised that if the tune is good enough the words don’t actually have to form a linear storyline.

But there are highlights for those who persevere to the last two tracks, Everybody’s Coming to My House which combines a fine and largely coherent set of lyrics with a bit of musical variety that includes a lead break. A prelude in fact to the musically satisfying finale that is Here, where Eno has delved a little deeper into his sonic palette and brought in some real drums and guitar to leaven the synth and electronic sounds elsewhere. It can’t be easy to be working non-stop and maintain quality and on this release Byrne hasn’t quite hit the mark, but full marks for effort.

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