(Nonesuch Records, out now)
David Byrne, of the iconic Talking Heads, is back with his first solo album in 14 years and its title is a giveaway to its themes. From the opening track, he instantly pulls the listener into a world of perfect suburban neighbourhoods and yuppie culture, although overall, the album has a darker tone.
It opens with I Dance Like This whose soft piano intro and expressive yet timid vocals lull the listener into a sense of calm, before assaulting you with synth beats. Robotic voices tell the listener they “dance because it feels so good”. The synthetic vocal effect Byrne uses has a very aggressive tone to it, like a cyber army forcing the listener to conform to their message. It places the album in a very dark, dystopian setting, which is reflected in the remaining songs.
Along with this darkness, Byrne’s lyrics are as abstract as ever, as seen on one of the highlights of the album Every Day Is A Miracle, with phrases like, “a cockroach might eat Mona Lisa”. This brings an introspective critique of the worlds that Byrne has conjured, as well as commenting on how insignificant we are in the great plan of the natural world. The album reaches its highest point with Everybody Is Coming To My House, a song that embodies the theme of the whole album – living a suburban life, fully aware of how self-contained these lives are. As Byrne sings, “We’re only tourists… but the view is nice”.
This level of wit and humour is a staple in the album and shows Byrne’s talent for using basic language in a very intelligent and observational way. It is also the musical high point of the album, with Byrne and collaborator Brian Eno blending in techno beats with jazz brass sections and electronic breakdowns.
American Utopia is somewhat marred by Byrne’s voice, which at points sounds a little shaky and out of tune, feeling accidental and awkward as opposed to something intentionally unconventional. The closing track Here is particularly disappointing, featuring a dissonant vocal and musical performance.
This definitely isn’t Byrne’s best but it’s by no means the worst either. His keen musical ear and natural composition skills are ever present. At some points though, the album can be its own worst enemy with monotonous songs that limit the effectiveness of the overall experience and overshadow some truly innovative, enjoyable music.