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David Byrne's 'American Utopia' is uncertain

By Cameron Fowler
On March 20, 2018

David Byrne always attempts to look at the bigger picture when approaching an album, a song or any of the myriad artistic waters he charts. “American Utopia” is no different, with Byrne himself saying “The title refers not to a specific utopia, but rather to our longing, frustration, aspirations, fears, and hopes regarding what could be possible, what else is possible.” Conceptually, that is a big ask, but not one big enough for Byrne, whose startling vocal delivery cemented the timeless nervous energy of Talking Heads. This album, featuring production from Brian Eno, moves all over the place sonically and tonally, often with satisfactory results, but occasionally dipping into esoteric nonsense.

There is a strong sense of playfulness with instrumentation throughout the record, with Byrne using drum machines and hip-hop-style production to add a saucy edge to his ramblings. “I Dance Like This” begins as a piano-laden lullaby which quickly turns into an industrial nightmare. These ideas are often at battle within the album, akin to a late-era Nick Cave album with all its crooning sadness. Byrne replaces the sadness with his trademark optimistic, yet sometimes robotic voice. The song kicks off the album quite strongly, the ebbs and flows of tenderness fighting with aggression. It’s a great preface for the rest of the album’s tone.

The album is at its strongest when it doesn’t try to show off too much. Tracks like “Dog’s Mind,” which is deliberately weird, with Byrne pondering the machinations of a dog’s mind and how it might relate to that of a human’s, don’t work with the earnestness of the album’s thesis. It doesn’t help that it follows “Every Day Is A Miracle,” a series of profane non-sequiturs about existence. “Miracle” is perhaps the album’s only marriage of marriage and indietronica, a match so muddled itself that the lyrics only make it seem aimless. These two tracks are easily the low points of the album, but the second half is much more consistent.

“This Is That” is a delicate, blossoming mix of electric harp and dark drums backing Byrne’s only real lyrics about love on the album. Its arrangement is the strongest on “American Utopia,” and best represents the possibility of the production. “It’s Not Dark Up Here” employs Talking Heads-era muscular rhythms with electronic beats building the bass line. Here, Byrne’s musings on God and death are better said than “Every Day Is A Miracle.”

“Bullet” again mixes organic acoustic guitars with aloof, dissonant tones, but the lyrics, which describe a man being shot in detail, feel empty. That same emptiness is felt on “Here,” where Byrne describes the brain, our thoughts, and perhaps human connection. The lyrics are simple but effective: “Here is an area that needs attention/Here is a connection with the opposite side.” The echoing drums and ethereal keys laid out beneath the words are at odds with the precise nature of the lyrics.

The uppity single “Everybody Is Coming To My House” best takes these themes from Byrne – uncertainty, existentialism, surrealism – and turns them into a similarly uncertain song. The tracks on “American Utopia” that stick out are the dire, desperate ones. The production undermines too much of the message. With Byrne trying to juggle too many things at once, “American Utopia” is just as uncertain as its narrator.

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