Released this week, David Byrne's American Utopia is the artist's first proper solo album in more than a decade. The hiatus may come as a surprise, but only because Byrne has been an avid collaborator and touring musician during a majority of that span. The one-time Talking Heads leader, who emerged in the late 70s from New York's punk scene with an art-pop fixation – and who has since influenced everyone from the Arcade Fire to Lady Gaga – approaches music from the perspective of a global explorer. Sounds from Africa, the Caribbean, and South America figure heavily into his rock-bred pedigree. To celebrating the arrival of American Utopia, we look at five of Byrne's most remarkable albums, songs, and projects.
Stop Making Sense
A landmark concert film – one that shows restraint and treats the stage as sacred – Stop Making Sense documents a pivotal time in music. When shot at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre in late 1983 by Jonathan Demme, the Talking Heads were cult favorites on the verge of stardom. The group's merging of surrealism, pop, funk, and rock was never more perfectly in sync – as evidenced by the square-like business suit that eventually engulfs Byrne or the singer's rhythmic convulsions that seem to emanate from a beat box. The movie functions as a journey into the construction of a song, with band members and instruments arriving one by one. Over the course of 88 minutes, the Talking Heads evolve from a quartet to a large, multi-racial, experimental funk outfit. The avant-garde was about to become mainstream, if only for a brief moment.
"And She Was"
Byrne has said "And She Was" was inspired by a hippie woman he knew who liked to take acid in Baltimore. That description feels somewhat mundane. After all, the 1985 song doubles as a flight of fancy. Byrne's colorful lyrics are fit for a trippy animated film in which the protagonist soars like Peter Pan over a suburban community. While the peppy arrangement presents the Talking Heads at their most commercial, a number of oddities – the deep tonal shift into the bridge, the pep-rally-worthy guitar arrangement, the static-charged keyboard – keep everything slightly off-balance. The lyrics, too, remain vague enough to invite interpretation, but Byrne's sense of awe at the nameless woman who he imagines taking off her dress high above the earth cannot be ignored. We sense passion and desire, but it's all out of reach.
"Take Me to the River"
Along with the Clash's "I Fought the Law" and Ike & Tina Turner's "Proud Mary," the Talking Heads' "Take Me to the River" stands as one of the great covers in pop history. Recorded for the band's second album, 1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food, the rendition upended not only the band's reputation but those associated with punk rock. Chris Frantz's booming, swinging drums and Tina Weymouth's sly, tail-wagging bass show the Talking Heads featured a rhythm section that learned plenty from America's R&B greats. Punk, then, became about possibilities rather than a genre. Al Green's original – also a classic – went with a lighter touch and smooth, sexy approach. The Talking Heads slow it down and spread it out, letting Byrne's choppy vocals emphasize the song's parallels between a spiritual awakening and lust.
Remain in Light
In 1980, the Talking Heads looked to break out of New York's anxious post-punk scene and craft an album that focused on band interplay, dispelling any notions that the group essentially served as a Byrne solo project. Recorded largely in the Bahamas and based heavily on dance and Afro-pop rhythms, Remain in Light, endures as a striking collaboration between the quartet and adventurous producer Brian Eno. Paranoid undercurrents inform a few songs – see the life-on-auto-pilot message of "Once in a Lifetime" – but here, the stress coursing through Byrne's lyrics come with a snake-like shimmy. Not quite disco and not quite new-wave, the Talking Heads explore what it means to be a rock n' dance band, utilizing hand rhythms and soulful horns on "The Great Curve" and burying ambient, dream-like textures under forceful claps on "Seen and Not Seen."
Post-Talking Heads, Byrne has resisted pressures to reunite the group, save for a halfhearted performance at the band's 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He's instead constructed an album of elegant Latin pop (1989's Rei Momo), collaborated with Fatboy Slim on a disco opera (2010's Here Lies Love), and made a harsh, brass-driven record with guitar ace St. Vincent (2012's Love This Giant). Yet American Utopia comes on as his most consistent post-Talking Heads work. Preoccupied with middle-class life in the U.S.A., Byrne turns to a host of young electronic-based producers and artists (Rodaidh McDonald, Daniel Lopatin, and Sampha, among others) to mold an effort that weds Byrne's obsessions with global rhythms and modern digital tools. The album sounds best when it opts for weirdness over topicality, but songs that put the listener into the mind of farm animals or dogs demonstrate just how silly our daily squabbles can be.
Photo credit: Jody Rogac