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Laurie Anderson: Life On A String


Laurie Anderson

Album: Life On A String
Label: Nonesuch

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In some respects, Laurie Anderson has never been particularly well served by the album form. Anderson's multimedia art places a special emphasis on music, but audio-only albums deny audiences the visual and theatrical elements of her performances. The time limitation of a CD also presents a problem, as several of her albums are abridged versions of longer works. Anderson is a master of gestalt in her live shows, but thematic unity often eludes her on record. Still, her albums often succeed. Such is the case with Life On A String, a project that began as a translation of Anderson's Melville-themed performance piece Songs And Stories From Moby Dick. As the album-opening "One White Whale" indicates, bits of that project made it onto the album. The three tracks surviving from Songs And Stories suggest that Anderson might want to finish the job someday, even if the best one, "Pieces And Parts," has less to do with Melville's writing than Anderson's own powerful narrative skills. Half-spoken and half-sung, the track uses the 19th-century discovery of whale bones in Alabama as a point of departure for a discussion of history, heartbreak, and God. Anderson's best work has always been simultaneously opaque and pointed, suggestive, and even topical, without being didactic. Those qualities apply again here. Through repetitive melodies (aided by A-list guest performers like Bill Frisell, Lou Reed, and Mitchell Froom), accomplished singing, and plainspoken delivery, Anderson achieves a hazy kind of subconscious logic. "And over on Jane Street they're shooting that movie again / They just can't seem to get it right," goes one couplet from "Washington Street." Anderson makes lines like that make sense without really making sense at all. The same could be said of her new album, which starts with a whale and ends with a pilgrimage to parts unknown.