David Byrne's first solo album in ten years, American Utopia, is an occasionally uncomfortable listen, but ultimately an important and joyful album.
Can you hear the name David Byrne without thinking of the super-sized suit or humming ‘Once in a Lifetime?’ Me neither. The Talking- Head-in-Chief moved to New York years ago. Like so many of us in recent years, he felt the urge to despair and hide whenever he watched the news. But he made a different choice. He started collecting pieces of good news instead: community projects which were making a big difference, and could be replicated. He saved these ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ on an Internet hub for everyone (https://www.reasonstobecheerful.world). These ‘cheerful reasons’ inspired him to write his first solo album in ten years.
‘American Utopia’ is a playful album. Byrne plays by splicing random things together to see what happens. Sometimes what happened gave me a mild headache. I’m not big on references to donkey dicks, and the timing of a song about bullets so swiftly after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting is unfortunate and uncomfortable to listen to. As a vicar trying to sleep next to a bordello would tell you, listening to other people’s play isn’t always as much fun as you might think.
And yet, there are some real gems here. For me, the standout track is ‘This is That,’ a beautiful oriental melody which is in stark counterpoint to the harsh American lyric. ‘Dogs Mind’ is a somber reflection on fake news. It challenges us stand up for the things that are really important, rather than idly dreaming or thinking about the immediate demands of the work on our desks. ‘Here,’ the final track on the album, is positively zen. It reminds us that all we see and feel are the stories our brains are telling us. It sounds a little like a Peter Gabriel song, but a damn good one. ‘Everyone’s coming to my House’ is easily as good as the classic Talking Heads songs, refreshed for the current day.
American Utopia is a really important album. David Byrne knows full well that these are dark days. He understands the urge to switch off the news and hide. But he’s challenging us to pay attention, get involved and to choose to be happy instead. Not all of this album is easy to listen to, but by God, it really needs to be heard.