There’s something so captivating in David Byrne’s anxieties. You can find it in much of the former Talking Heads frontman’s work, teetering on the edge of shrieking paranoia. And so it goes for his latest album, American Utopia. His first individually-attributed title since 2004’s Grown Backwards, it’s almost reassuring to know that the fear of the present – with its political corruption and consumerist claustrophobia – has certainly not gone out of style. But Utopia itself might be ever-so-slightly hindered by that agitation; while the wit is as present as ever, the experimentation here can feel more like a jumble of ideas than anything coherent. Still, it’s a solid and at-times exciting work, which recalls just why Byrne is the white-haired, wide-eyed new-wave prophet who entranced so many in the first place.
The dry wit that once spoke to psycho killers everywhere is fully intact
Certainly, Byrne’s working at his best when slotting into a manner of high-strung, quavering energy. Back with producer Brian Eno, among others, the album possesses some delightfully weird and layered divergences, harkening back to the duo’s hybrid-eccentricities of polyrhythms, funk, and rock. ‘Doing The Right Thing’ breaks off from its ethereal musings on human agency – accompanied by lax guitars and strings – to indulge in funky glitch electronica. Likewise, ‘This Is That’ pairs muffled bass beats with too-causal guitar noodling and reverb. It’s these implicit moments of calm tension in an otherwise manic situ that give the album its drive. The explicit stuff works hand-in-hand; ‘It’s Not Dark Up Here’ explodes into an exclamatory chorus that showcases the best of Byrne’s shaky-but-stylish voice. Much of the album opens itself up to this kind of mad-scientist experimentation- Byrne’s taking you on a tour of his queasy utopia, and damned if you’re gonna comment on how messy it is.
But the bag-of-tricks approach has its downsides. It’s easy for Byrne and Eno to toss out a new invention, but sometimes harder for them to elaborate on it. The aforementioned songs might burst with verve and unpredictability, but others can just ladle out the same motifs for three-odd minutes. ‘Bullet’ has a neat hook- the slow progress of a bullet through a man’s body leads to an almost tragicomic return to the cry of “the bullet went into him!” It can’t quite sustain itself, however, as the conceit builds and repeats to not much at all. Other songs can seem aware of this limited scope; ‘Dog’s Mind’ abruptly cuts out around the time of its climax. But it’s not a great start when the album opens with one of its feeblest- ‘I Dance Like This’ tries to nail an energetic mash-up of energy and Cohen-esque elegy, though neither really develops beyond their constant repetition. These ideas are never weak, nor poorly-handled; they simply wear out their welcome.
If the music can suffer from a mixed-bag of incoherence, Byrne’s lyricism remains as consistent as ever. The dry wit that once spoke to psycho killers everywhere is fully intact; gently edging a playful naiveté with a glinting, political sharpness, the words can’t help but force an involuntary cackle. ‘Gasoline And Dirty Sheets’ meshes a comically-unfocussed tone – moving, in descriptors, from “someone” to “many people” to “this woman” – with the incendiary subtext of the title. The speaker will take a Molotov cocktail to the system- even if they’re not quite sure what that system is. On the flipside, ‘Every Day Is A Miracle’ embraces absurdist stupidity, noting that “God is a very old rooster/ and eggs are like Jesus, his son”. If you ever think the thing’s taking itself seriously, it flips that out.
Even if the overall effect is of a haphazard try-this-try-that, American Utopia still thrives on how much fun it’s having. Jumping from item to item, theme-to-theme, an irrepressible energy surges all throughout; no matter the quality of one concept, there’ll be something else waiting round the corner. Perhaps that incoherence is to be respected. We might ask for clarity and logic in the progression of something, but the exciting mania of not quite knowing what’s happening has a way of overshadowing any doubts before the plunge. When it’s mixed in with words as manic and brilliant as the ones here, you can almost always half-glimpse the jittery pulse behind all that high-strung energy. Maybe that’s what Byrne expects of you in his typically-American utopia: to lie back, plug in, switch off, and freak out.