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Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is American Utopia, the new solo album from former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.
For more than 40 years, David Byrne has chronicled the ways that the contrivances of modern life--from political news to technology to meaningless war over natural resources--has combined to make it hard for us to see the meaning of life, to appreciate what’s important, and to live without being a nervous wreck. So it makes sense that American Utopia, his first completely solo album in 14 years, feels like what it’s like to live in 2018, a year when every single refresh of your social media feeds can bring a new calamity, a new way the world is ending, and a new way of removing ourselves from a meaningful existence.
Byrne was prodded into making American Utopia by Brian Eno, who, as Byrne’s producer and collaborator for 40 years, kept sending him drum tracks to work over. Once Byrne started tinkering with the drum tracks, he realized he had made 10 songs, and, as he told Uproxx, he realized he wanted to make the songs as good as they could be, which led to him bringing in ringers like Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin, Doveman, and Joey Waronker in various instrumental capacities. The sound they conjure is airy and simultaneously cramped, mechanical but also organic; which is to say it sounds like a David Byrne album should.
“I Dance Like This” opens the album with a gentle piano, before spilling out to the “other dimension” mentioned in the lyrics, with Byrne ruminating on the confusion that comes from encountering a mode of being you can’t comprehend via dance. Things get topically more difficult and resonant from there, capturing the scientific trip of a bullet through someone’s body (“Bullet”), trying to determine what is “right” in a morally unclear situation in a morally unclear world (“Doing The Right Thing”), and how to deal with information overload (“Here”). It’s an album where the search for answers is all consuming and maybe impossible.
While there’s a palpable sense of discord on American Utopia, Byrne isn’t a pessimist; he ultimately believes things can be good, that the small miracles of life make it worth living. “Every day is a miracle / every day is an unpaid bill / you have to sing for your supper / love one another” he sings on the jocular “Every Day is a Miracle,” before putting things in perspective. “A cockroach might eat Mona Lisa / the Pope don’t mean shit to a dog,” Byrne sings, reminding you that you’re just dust in the wind. Byrne didn’t set out to make this album just as some kind of salve for these times; that’s been one of his messages since Talking Heads: 77. It’s still a good time for that reminder though.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.