David Byrne, originally of the Talking Heads, has churned out countless albums over his 40 year musical career, as well as venturing into the visual arts and writing. As a massive David Byrne groupie, I was pretty pumped to hear American Utopia, his first solo effort in 14 years. Long story short, I was brutally underwhelmed.
Byrne really hyped up his fanbase, billing the tour to follow this album’s release as his “most ambitious tour since Stop Making Sense,” the 1984 tour-turned-concert film which encapsulated the Talking Heads in their prime.
Byrne seems hesitant to fade from prominence, and this album shows him pulling out all the stops to prevent himself from following the typical path of a rock legend reaching the end of his career. Based on American Utopia, I’m not entirely sure that it’s working for him.
The chaotic yet contained energy that made David Byrne a charismatic frontman is wholly lacking on this album. The harsh, clipped vocals that endeared listeners to the Talking Heads and later, Byrne’s solo work, have lost their edge. While the album has occasional bright spots, such as “It’s Not Dark Up Here,” a track packed with his trademark yelps and growls and accompanied by some catchy guitar and whistling, these moments are few and far between. His traditionally witty lyrics have instead been replaced by the ramblings of a burnt-out teenager, with lines like “Your mind is a soft-boiled potato,” and “The pope doesn’t mean sh*t to a dog,” (Every Day is a Miracle). There’s even a poop joke on the track, “Dog’s Mind” (“Doggy dancers doing doody / doggy dreaming all day long”).
Additionally, the album is lyrically chock-full of clichés, which quickly become annoying. This positivity at times feels forced; if Byrne wishes to make an album about peace and kindness, then all the better for the world. However, it seems pretty cheesy to me, especially with lines like, “I’m always, I’m always doing the right thing / I’m doing the right thing,” from the inventively titled track “Doing the Right Thing,”
The main messages of this album, as well as the lecture series and blogs Byrne is devising to coincide with it, are super banal. He covers themes like peace and kindness, the evils of money and capitalism and the joy of life’s simple pleasures with no innovation, simply stating platitudes. No political or moral statement Byrne is making is radical, or even new, really. Although it is nice that he wants to use his (dwindling) platform to promote art and kindness, it feels wrong. It seems almost as though Byrne is creating a position of preachy moral authority for himself, like he did in his mansplain-y memoir-turned-musical manifesto How Music Works, published in 2012.
Byrne is well known for being experimental and taking risks with his music, usually with great reward. However, on this album, these risks often feel uncalculated and clumsy. Byrne moans his way through the songs, accompanied by varied production (primarily done by Byrne himself). Brian Eno, renowned composer and a long-time collaborator of Byrne’s, also contributed to the album. I found myself searching for his influence, and instead got lost in the platitudinal positivity that dominates the whole record.
One highlight the album has to offer is “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” which is a genuinely fun track that showcases Byrne’s talent as a satirist of the traditional American dream. Something about this track feels more raw and genuine, disjointed from the rest of the album.
The album closes with “Here,” which is a strangely jumbled and repetitive track co-written by Byrne and Daniel Lopatin, also known by his recording alias Oneohtrix Point Never. It seems as though the injection of a younger, more experimental musician is exactly what this album needs; however, this track still feels like a lackluster lullaby with some fun background noises.
All in all, I’m disappointed, but not surprised, and will likely continue to stan David Byrne until the day I die. Check out this album if you feel inclined, but you certainly won’t be blown away.