One of the most generous conceits of the musical is that everyone has a song to sing. Hero or villain, characters have a right to take center stage and justify themselves. A collaboration between David Byrne and Fatboy Slim inspired by the rise and fall of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos—and the parallel story of Estrella Cumpas, the woman who helped raise Imelda up from humble beginnings that Cumpas herself never escaped—the musical-in-album-form Here Lives Love attempts to give the devils their due. Over 22 songs, most sung from Imelda’s privilege-blinkered perspective, Byrne and Slim create scenes from the life of a woman who saw herself as a glamorous ambassador who could best aid her country and her powerful husband by becoming the star she always imagined herself to be as an amateur singer and beauty queen. For sonic inspiration, the collaborators draw on Imelda Marcos’ time as a disco habitué in the late ’70s and early ’80s, fitting each dance-floor-friendly track with a vocalist appropriate to the mood they want to create, from Florence And The Machine’s Florence Welch to Cyndi Lauper to Tori Amos.
It’s a conceptually fascinating piece, but does it groove? Mostly yes. Though nothing here sounds like a future club hit, and some tracks feel more essential to the album’s narrative than others, Here Lies Love has more going for it than museum-piece fascination. Byrne’s gift for willful naïveté serves him well when he’s crafting lyrics for characters who don’t fully understand themselves, often by choice. Byrne and Slim use their all-star guests well, giving Sharon Jones a gritty, dusty beat on the namedropping “Dancing Together” and using Candie Payne and St. Vincent to heartbreaking effect on “Every Drop Of Rain,” an early-album duet between Imelda and Cumpas about the humiliations of poverty. Listeners will soon forget its lessons in the coming swirl of disco beats, then wonder where she got lost when the beats come to an end. Everyone has a right to a song, but no song lasts forever.