What does it sound like?:
The Afterword has been to the gigs and enjoyed Spike Lee’s movie but how about completing the set and buying the soundtrack? The musicians on the American Utopia were untethered, all wore matching grey suits with bare feet and every move across the stage was carefully choreographed, their ebbs and flows emphasised and exaggerated by simple but effective lighting, the backdrop being a curtain of chains. Can a soundtrack capture a show whose essence is so visual?
There are twelve musicians: guitar, bass, keyboards, six percussionists, two backing vocalists and David Byrne himself, contributing guitar to some songs. The bassist, Bobby Wooten III, revels in the limelight and the percussionists, who more than substitute for a drum kit, are well organised and disciplined. They add power and intricacy to songs that rely heavily on complex rhythmical patterns.
They play twenty-two songs in all: ten Talking Heads: one from ’77, one Fear Of Music, three Remain In Light, three Speaking in Tongues, one Little Creatures and one Naked: six ‘solo’ Byrne, four of which were collaborations, and five from the American Utopia album itself, plus a cover. The song choices are mostly the obvious ones, the ‘greatest hits’ so to speak, with a few surprises. Each swiftly follows the other. Without the thoughtful and enlightening introductions Byrne delivered during the concerts and in the film is it possible to discern the narrative themes of the concert? Byrne’s view of the world has always been odd, distorted from a point of alienation and disconnection. But, here, he sees himself as an active part of society, a cog, a contributor to the Gaia collective of mankind, connected and involved, even if, at times, uncomfortable and reticent. The grey uniformity of the players blends him into the whole. He’s also playful, witty and willing to go out on a limb, unafraid to poke fun at himself. His singing, even taking into account any post-event adjustments, is at its best, completely without any trace of the cynicism of his youth. There is a deep affection for others in these performances. This is a Soundtrack album full of humanity and warmth.
The American Utopia tracks fare well, rubbing shoulders with Talking Heads at their peak. The album’s finale, Here, is perfectly placed as an opener, introducing us to the concept of the connections that make us the people we are. Everybody’s Coming To My House is welcoming and moving, leaving three tracks clumped together just after the halfway point, I Dance Like This, Bullet and Every Day Is A Miracle, all benefiting from the additional percussion.
This version of I Zimbra is stunning, the guitar and the rhythm sparkling, the vocal a united chorus of all twelve voices. The absence of visuals puts Burning Down The House at a disadvantage but Lazy, his dance hit with X-Press 2 in 2002, soars. Glass, Concrete & Stone from Grown Backwards in 2004 is personal and revelatory, almost intimate in this Broadway setting. Surprisingly, the weaving rhythms of Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On), Blind and the encore, The Great Curve, work less well, although lead guitarist Angie Swan takes the opportunity on the encore of the latter to excel. Maybe, I’m weary of side one of Remain In Light but, these days, I much prefer the strangeness and intrigue of side two, making me think Houses In Motion would have been superb given the American Utopia treatment and (Nothing But) Flowers might have been a better choice from Naked.
The emotional core of the concert is to be found in a cover of Jonelle Monae’s Black Lives Matter protest song, Hell You Talmbout. The title is a truncation of ‘What the hell are you talking about’ which is chanted over an African rhythm. The names of those whose lives were cut short at the hands of authority are called out to a chorus of ‘Say his name!’ or her. It’s a stirring, passionate rendition leading up to a joyous and celebratory finale of Road To Nowhere, suitably concluding a journey of a gig packed with exhilaration and pleasure.
David Byrne’s American Utopia On Broadway may well be his best live album. The Name Of This Band Is is a mish-mash of different Talking Heads eras and Stop Making Sense only became fully coherent as an expanded reissue.
The American Utopia tour is more than a cherry on the top of his multi-layered cake of a career. It’s his crowning glory, a summation of the story he’s been telling his whole life, one that finally makes sense. Best of all, it presents a happy David Byrne comfortable in his own skin.
It feels good to be alive.
What does it all *mean*?
The overall quality makes most of the studio versions sound weedy in comparison. Perhaps, this could trigger another look at the Talking Heads catalogue, last remastered in 2005.
Goes well with…
A sense of adventure. Spike Lee’s film.
25th October 2019
Might suit people who like…
Talking Heads, of course.