A couple of weeks ago I saw David Byrne in Philadelphia, playing with St. Vincent and an eight piece brass band. They tore through the majority of their new album, Love This Giant, and took turns doing solo pieces re-worked for brass. (The highlight being an awesome rendition of the Byrne/Eno song “Strange Overtones” from Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.) The show rocked! But while their performance brought vitality to some Love This Giant songs that sound a bit stilted to me, it didn’t change my overall opinion of the album, and, in particular, Byrne’s songwriting, which I wrote about recently in two pieces.
Television Man: David Byrne on the Couch, on The Paris Review Daily, shines light on how Byrne’s critical edge has dulled over the years by looking at three of his songs about television. My approach leans heavily on Jonathan Lethem’s analysis of the song “Cities” in his book on the Talking Heads album Fear of Music, where Lethem locates “Cities” on a continuum of songs that express the band’s view of places other than New York City. My acknopologies, Jonathan!
David Byrne Needs to Open Up Again, for The Atlantic, looks at Love This Giant, and also Byrne’s book How Music Works. I really wanted to love this book, but mostly found myself disappointed with Byrne’s cold, removed view of his own career, especially his low opinion of lyrics and lyric-writing. I landed on the word “personal” to describe my problem with Byrne’s view, which I don’t think is quite right. A better, more nuanced word might be conviction.
Byrne wrote somewhere—on his blog, I think, not in the book—about how a singer’s technique can mask his emotion. A singer staying in perfect pitch, he postulates, lacks the emotional impact of someone just tearing it up and going for it, perfection be-damned. I think Byrne’s become a victim of this very thing, with songs that new emphasize melody and long lines over the more percussive, emotional outbursts of his earlier work. Not just how he sang, but what he sang grabbed me so much more, whereas now I often find his lyrics interesting, but rarely heartfelt. Maybe I ask too much of him, who knows, but I don’t feel his work the way I used to, and this piece tries to get at why.
Herein ends my writing about David Byrne and Talking Heads, at least for the foreseeable future. I think I’ve said all I want to about them for now, a conclusion which feels good to arrive at.