‘American Utopia’ is optimistic in intentions, falls in execution

Nonesuch Records Inc./Courtesy

Related Posts

Grade: 3.0/5.0

With David Byrne’s most recent solo album American Utopia, the legendary, musical powerhouse of the late 20th century returns with his first solo studio release in more than a decade. The album brings a whimsical cheeriness often missing in music that digresses from the pop mainstream. Yet it’s when Byrne tries to bring an experimental edge to the album that his tracks sound misguided in their intentions.

The simplicity of Byrne’s lyrics make the songs easy enough to digest, but their meanings allow them to remain poignant, lingering long after each listen. In the track “Dog’s Mind,” Byrne trudges through the complexities and monotonies of the political world before adopting the perspective of a dog for the last verses. The dog knows nothing of this tumultuous man-made world. The dog gets to be happy. In this campy yet sentimental song, Byrne highlights the simpler things in life. He uses the ballad-like fervor of his voice to carry the listener through his narrative, reminding us that there are pockets of happiness, even in the most tumultuous of times.

There’s a quirky sense of experimentalism that gives Byrne’s music its edge as a whole, but in American Utopia, the jumps in his music feel jarring. Instead of his transitions playing with listeners’ expectations, it sounds as though Byrne is caught between two oppositional forces. In the first track from the album, “I Dance Like This,” there is a tonal shift after the first quarter of the song. It drops from a delicate piano opening to a chorus that’s paired with skipping, bass-heavy instrumentals. Between the chorus and verses, “I Dance Like This” possesses an amalgamation of dramatic tonal shifts that fail to ease the listener into the album.

In American Utopia, there exist two personas of Byrne. There’s the one that plays with more modern pop sounds, and there’s the one that returns to the time of Talking Heads. For artists like Byrne — a musician who defined a generation of avant-garde electronic music in the late ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s — to continually release music that’s a perfect fusion of their old style and their new visions is a difficult task to achieve. It’s difficult to ask artists, especially those who have left monumental marks on the music industry, to continually bring something new to their work.

Nevertheless, Byrne moves forward without taking steps back. His work with Brian Eno on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today and St. Vincent on Love This Giant are beautiful examples of his ability to move forward and branch out in style and sound. Granted, these are collaborations, but they’re collaborations that Byrne shines in. With American Utopia being his first solo studio work since 2004, fans had high expectations for Byrne — expectations that didn’t come to fruition.

Although American Utopia isn’t the strongest work of Byrne’s career, it’s still a mark of the artist’s evolution — an active evolution that he’s been continuing since the beginning of his career. He continues to use music to connect people and expand the ways in which a piece of work can evolve once it leaves the hands of its creator.

Byrne’s music video for the album’s track “Everybody’s Coming To My House” uses the art of Doug Henders, a former U.S. Army cartographer who works in abstract art. His illustrations come alive to Byrne’s track, shifting and evolving as the song progresses. Byrne also collaborated with the Detroit School of Arts, where students performed a jazz vocal rendition of the song under the instruction of choir director Cheryl Valentine. By bringing this school’s program to the public eye and encouraging his music to be interpreted in diverse styles, Byrne shows his openness to artistic growth.

American Utopia has a hard time standing on its own — Byrne’s shaky stylistic leaps in this album prevent it from reaching its full potential. Nevertheless, Byrne’s trust in others to further the development of his sound, coupled with his ability to continue to put out new work, shows that Byrne isn’t just a hit from the past — he’s a continually changing and growing artist.

Annalise Kamegawa covers music. Contact her at [email protected].