Poet Tony Hoagland can be described as a master of the everyday moment, a poet who, through focusing on those things that are mundane in our world orthopedic shoes, the fortune cookies we receive in a Chinese restaurant, a dinner we had with friends illuminates the surprising or sublime that lies behind the surface. It occurred to me the other day, as I was leafing through a collection of Hoagland's poems while listening to Grown Backwards, David Byrne's new album, that these two artists have a similar way of viewing the world. Byrne, like Hoagland, is able to take the most average event and turn it into something utterly new and surprising. And the remarkable thing is, they both accomplish this task with a deftness and ease that elude even the most talented among us. It's this characteristic that makes Grown Backwards such an astonishing and beautiful creation.
As a member of the art-school-meets-punk-rock band Talking Heads, Byrne helped create smart, angular songs featuring pronounced rhythms and detached, sometimes inscrutable, lyrics. Beginning with 1979's Fear of Music and continuing through their final album, 1988's Naked, the band expanded their musical palette and challenged the rigid labels of the music industry, offering listeners African rhythms, groovy world beats, and an ever-expanding lineup of international musicians. The results, of course, were some of the most influential, creative, and experimental albums of the last half of the 20th century.
After Talking Heads disbanded in 1991, Byrne continued to explore the boundaries of pop music on his solo albums. Experimentation has been the touchstone of his solo work, with Byrne adopting Afro-Brazilian and Latin rhythms on 1989's Rei Momo, injecting new life into the New Wave sound on 1992's Uh-Oh, and acting as a type of mash-up artist on 1997's Feelings, which throws bass and drum beats, Indian music, and Latin rhythms into the same pot. What has remained constant over Byrne's career is his emphasis on percussive beats, as well as his often quirky and probing lyrics.
So, it may come as a bit of a surprise that on Grown Backwards Byrne downplays the world-beats in favor of string arrangements. The heightened presence of strings, however, may help explain why this album has a much more melodic feel than previous Byrne projects. Grown Backwards opens with "Glass, Concrete & Stone," an exploration of love through the lens of, oddly enough, construction materials. The song begins with a marimba and percussion beat, and then moves into a flowing melody with the addition of cello and Byrne's vocals: "Now, I'm waking at the crack of dawn/ To send a little money home/ From here to the moon/ Is rising like a discotheque." As the song progresses, the singer travels to meet a woman, who is standing in a parking lot next to a building. For Byrne, it seems, the building stands for a mere edifice, a structure which possesses no substance: ". . .she waits by this/ Glass and concrete and stone/ It's just a house, not a home." The distinction between house and home equals the distinction between superficial feelings of attraction and love: "So I'm puttin' on aftershave/ Nothin' is out of place/ Gonna be on my way/ Try to pretend it's not only/ Glass and concrete and stone."
Byrne continues to explore the deeper mysteries of life by focusing on the everyday throughout the album, with the Tosca Strings providing a gentle, gliding feeling to a number of tracks. "The Other Side of This Life" opens with sweeping strings that will have you dancing around the room, floating on the sheer ease of the melody. The fact that Byrne may be singing about the afterlife "I don't have any more problems/ All of my worries are gone/ Beautiful angels appear at my side/ And corporate sponsors will act as my guide/ Agents & analysts take me inside/ The other side of this life" only enhances the giddy quality of the song. In "Pirates," Byrne presents waking up in the morning as a moment where we can convince ourselves that just about anything is possible in the day ahead: "A ray of light, between the blinds/ I lie there in a stupor/ I hear a thud, and then a flush/ Guess it must be the neighbors/ I blink my eyes, I laugh inside/ Imagine what they're saying/ I see your shape and through the night/ Here come, those pirates on parade/Ahoy, it's pirates on parade."
On those tracks that do not feature strings, Byrne uses only a few dashes of percussion and other instruments to imbue the songs with a certain wistfulness. "Civilization," for instance, employs a wheezing accordion and, according to the liner notes, a vacuum cleaner, as the backdrop for the awkward neurosis of a man on a first date: "Isn't she here? What time is it now?/ Is this the right place? Do I fit with her crowd?/ I'm gonna be a civilized man someday." The fact that the singer's fretting eventually leads him to ponder the very nature of civilization is evidence of Byrne's talent for surprising us with the ordinary. "Lazy," the final track of the album, can only be described as orchestral-techno-dance-pop, which makes no sense, I know. You'll just have to listen for yourself.
Nestled among these tales of love and anxiety, pirates and astronauts, are two songs which are odd even for a David Byrne album. "Au Fond du Temple Saint" and "Un di Felice, Eterea" are pieces from operas by Bizet and Verdi, and are sung in French and Italian, respectively. Byrne is joined on "Au Fond" by Rufus Wainwright, whose voice seems a bit more suited to opera than Byrne's. The two pull it off, however, and the inclusion of opera makes a certain sense. Byrne has always been interested in expanding our current conceptions of popular music, and opera was the pop music of its day.
In the poem "When Dean Young Talks about Wine," Tony Hoagland asks: "But where
is the Cabernet of rent checks and asthma medication?/ Where is the Burgundy
of orthopedic shoes?/ Where is the Chablis of skinned knees and jelly sandwiches?" On Grown
Backwards, Byrne provides the musical answer to Hoagland's questions. The
beauty and richness of our seemingly mundane lives can be found here, in the
bossa-nova of minor catastrophes, the pseudo-jazz of strippers, and the easy
lilt of coffee cups.