David Byrne: American Utopia review – Compelling reasons to be cheerful
David Byrne turns 66 in May. He hasn’t exactly been lying low of late, so it is somewhat shocking to learn that American Utopia is actually his first solo album since Grown Backwards in 2004.
In the intervening years, Byrne has been prolifically tipping away on several high-profile collaborative albums with Brian Eno, St Vincent and Fatboy Slim, in addition to writing the well-received books Bicycle Diaries and How Music Works.
On American Utopia, Brian Eno yet again co-produces alongside Scottish whizz-kid Rodaidh McDonald, who has worked with contemporary trailblazers and heavyweights such as The xx, King Krule, Adele, Daughter, Savages, The Horrors, Bobby Womack, Vampire Weekend, Gil Scott-Heron and Sampha. Seeing as Eno bangs out roughly two ambient albums a year off his own bat, plus a plethora of other production projects, collaborations and God knows what else, American Utopia must be about the billionth record he’s done.
Current Mercury Music Prize winner Sampha Sisay pops up on the lead single Everybody’s Coming to My House, and the ubiquitous Eno is credited with playing “robot rhythm guitar” – whatever the hell that means. It’s a classic David Byrne song, featuring a meaty, innovative beat and a thrilling horn section, all topped off with a marvellous melody, catchy chorus, and terrific lyrics. “We’re only tourists in this life,” Byrne sings. “Only tourists but the view is nice.” There’s only one man who can throw this kind of house party.
Everybody’s Coming to My House, from American Utopia
The guest list also features Thomas Bartlett aka Doveman of The Gloaming on mellotron, Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) on keys and electronics, and drummer Joey Waronker (Atoms for Peace, Beck). Unsurprisingly, guests of this calibre create a dazzling soundscape, with the possible exception of a slightly underwhelming opening track.
Byrne calls American Utopia a reaction to the times, but he doesn’t resort to anger or cynicism. Instead, he views the world through the same lens as a Talking Heads album such as More Songs About Buildings and Food, focusing on the minutiae of life and sometimes imagining himself as an immigrant or animal. “The pope don’t mean shit to a dog,” Byrne notes on Every Day Is a Miracle. “And elephants don’t read newspapers.”
The canine theme is further extrapolated on Dog’s Mind, where Byrne likens human civilization to dogs in a theme park – although you’d almost be seduced by the literal logic of George Orwell’s “four legs good, two legs bad” maxim from Animal Farm after recent shenanigans in the US. “These songs don’t describe an imaginary or possibly impossible place but rather attempt to depict the world we live in now,” Byrne explains. “Many of us, I suspect, are not satisfied with that world – the world we have made for ourselves. We look around and we ask ourselves, well, does it have to be like this? Is there another way?”
When Trump made his infamous ‘shithole countries’ outburst last January, Byrne beautifully responded by posting a ‘beautiful shitholes’ playlist
American Utopia is part of a wider multimedia project entitled Reasons to be Cheerful, named after the classic Ian Dury song, which does exactly what it says in the tin. The Scottish-born Byrne voted in his first US presidential election in 2016, and we know all too well how that ended up in much weeping and gnashing of teeth. When Trump made his infamous “shithole countries” outburst last January, Byrne beautifully responded by posting a “beautiful shitholes” playlist.
Another reason to be cheerful is that Byrne will be touring American Utopia with his most ambitious live production since Stop Making Sense. Sources indicate that an Irish date is very much on the cards, so hopefully we’ll get a chance to lose ourselves in Byrne’s live utopia. If his thrilling Electric Picnic appearance with St Vincent or unforgettable shows in the National Concert Hall and Belfast’s Waterfront are anything to go by, the return of the Byrne could be the hottest ticket of the year. davidbyrne.com