The purest expression of David Byrne’s creative outlook can’t be found on a Talking Heads record or in an elaborate installation or in any of the thousands of words he’s written about songs, current events, cycling, and art. It’s in a movie, and it’s not even the first movie that springs to mind: In the “Shopping Is A Feeling” vignette from True Stories, Byrne’s cowboy-hatted narrator visits the local mall, offering a straightforward account of how the structure has altered life in fictional Virgil, Texas. When Byrne isn’t training the camera on himself, he’s using it as his eyes, in a POV amble down one long corridor of commerce. The narrator, in cheery tones, observes and reports. This is the building. These are the people within it. This is what they’re doing. Isn’t it fascinating?
Is he joking? Is he serious? Does this shrine to conspicuous consumption earn his endorsement or his scorn? Does the answer lie somewhere in between? Is there an answer at all?
The ability to raise such questions with and make art out of something as mundane as a clutch of department stores has served Byrne well for more than 40 years. And for much of American Utopia, his first solo album since 2004’s Grown Backwards, it continues to serve him. A mixed bag of songs recorded with a variety of collaborators, American Utopia finds the nearly 66-year-old artist prodding at the stuff of modern life from a remote, but not unemotional, perch. That he’s doing so isn’t news; Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his radiant 2008 release with Brian Eno, also attempted to inject some optimism into an atmosphere of prevailing pessimism. In the earnest aspiration of its title, American Utopia acknowledges that Byrne’s work in this vein aims at a moving target. “The world won’t end / It will just change its name” goes one characteristic lyric. In 1986, the decentralization of the American city looked like the end of the world; in 2008, invasive technology did, too. A new ugliness presents itself hourly in 2018, and David Byrne’s still here, ready to don his cowboy hat and stroll through the wreckage in search of something beautiful. Not for nothing does American Utopia’s first single begin with “I wish I was a camera.” He’s pointing and describing, and he can be your guide.
“Solo album” is largely a misnomer. American Utopia began as the latest collaboration between Byrne and Eno; as recording continued, Eno’s rhythm tracks formed the bedrock on which a mounting number of artists—The xx producer Rodaidh McDonald, “Timmy’s Prayer” singer Sampha, U.K. dance wunderkind Happa, to name a few—made contributions in the studio and across the internet. (Commenters were quick to point out the lack of women on that roster, and Byrne was similarly swift and sincere in his recognition of the oversight and his contrition.) McDonald’s touch can be heard in the chittering “Intro” guitars of “Every Day Is A Miracle,” but the most distinctive flourishes on American Utopia belong to Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never, whose melted Pure Moods aesthetic girds the most touching numbers, “This Is That” and “Here.”
“Hear too many sounds for your brain to comprehend / Here the sound gets organized into things that make some sense” Byrne sings on the latter, and it’s an apt summation of the American Utopia experience. It’s the music of three different albums playing simultaneously, fading in and out of the mix depending on what the mood calls for. American Utopia is the album of experimentally programmed beats he didn’t make with Eno, the international all-star jam he did make with McDonald, and the quieter glitch opera he should make with Lopatin.
All of which places the headliner squarely in the creator/curator position that’s been his most prominent public-facing role in the 21st century. “In the recording studio, I drew song grids in a notebook—labeled with verses, choruses, instrumental sections and endings,” Byrne wrote in the annotations to a playlist of work from the American Utopia guest list. “When the contributions of some of these artists arrived over the internet, I’d note which sections ‘worked’ and which didn’t—in my opinion. So we often ended up with a whole slew of contributors to a song, a patchwork—and somehow it worked.”
It’s not difficult to see why: The music is a hodgepodge of styles, techniques, and voices, but there’s a steady hand holding the needle, guided by a singular and seasoned vision—the curiosity and the enthusiasm that have long been his trademarks. That, and a desire to share, whether it’s a cool new sound that’s caught his ear, a statistic about Portuguese drug policy that lights a glimmer of hope in a dark world, or the liner notes explaining why he chose a painting by outsider artist Purvis Young as the cover art for American Utopia. It’s a spirit captured on the recording contained behind the cover, in one of those inimitable David Byrne hiccups: “I welcome you to my house / You didn’t have to go far.”
Byrne is probably the most plainspoken pop star to ever have the mantles of big thinker and public intellectual thrust upon them. American Utopia’s profundities are simple, and often feel stumbled upon; Byrne is the type of musician who can keep the corniness out of a song titled “Every Day Is A Miracle,” and this is the type of record that manages to give heft to a rhetorical question like “Must a question have an answer?” The big swings at topical material—refugee crises, gun violence—aren’t the ones that connect, but “Gasoline And Dirty Sheets” and “Bullet” can each at least lay claim to a solid groove. Far better is “Doing The Right Thing,” a survey of tasteful and thoughtful living (“She picks out some arts and crafts / I’m deep into the local cuisine”) that recalls Byrne and St. Vincent’s “Dinner For Two.” Like the partygoers dropped into the Buñuel-esque chaos on that Love This Giant standout, the privileged POV of “Doing The Right Thing” can only extend so far, Lopatin’s refined strings giving way to an overdriven electronic freak-out the same way the narrator’s stream of self-examination snaps back on itself: “What’s good? / Does that mean it’s right?”
Abstraction abounds on the album, taking familiar forms from the artist’s back catalog: dogs, architecture, idiosyncratic dance moves. As funny as those moments can be (see: “The pope don’t mean shit to a dog”), the headier moments of American Utopia tend to dissipate in the ether. Telling the story of a shooting from the perspective of the bullet is a clever creative exercise, but the album can do, and does, better. What makes that True Stories scene stand out, more than 30 years later, is the way it sidesteps its guided tour to consider the people whose paths the narrator crosses: “People here are inventing their own system of beliefs. They’re creating it, doing it, selling it, making it up as they go along.” Utopia’s a nice thing to believe in, but it’s just an idea. So is America. What lingers is tangible, and personal, and here.