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David Byrne and St. Vincent, ‘Love This Giant’ (Todo Mundo/4AD)

Byrne and Clark / Andreas Laszlo Konrath
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: September 11, 2012
Label: Todo Mundo/4AD

Even if you’re not a fan, don’t you at least admire David Byrne? His career is a textbook example of how to grow older in the pitiless land of pop — the man recently turned 60 — and still do interesting, if not always great, work. Most notably, there’s his openness to younger artists, which has helped him avoid old-fogeydom. Though the former Talking Heads frontman’s solo albums have been hit-or-miss, 2010’s Here Lies Love, the two-disc Imelda Marcos dance-pop opera he created with Fatboy Slim (featuring a host of distinctive singers, from Nellie McKay to Santigold) was dazzling.

Here Lies Love also featured Annie Clark, a.k.a., knotty indie-rock siren St. Vincent, but even without that prior connection, her newly minted, album-length partnership with Byrne on Love This Giant still makes sense. Both shun the obvious in their songs, alluding to the trials of the human condition instead of simply spelling them out, often with deeply moving results, at least for patient listeners. If the elliptical approach also produces the occasional head-scratcher, riddles can be fun, too (in limited doses).

But while the three-decades-younger Clark might have provided a jolt of adrenaline to Byrne, who probably hasn’t emitted one of his trademark psycho yelps since the ’80s, the opposite has occurred on the absorbing, but too often bloodless Giant. The jumpy edge in Clark’s voice on last year’s electrifying St. Vincent album Strange Mercy has given way to a gentler, safer approach more in sync with Byrne’s wistful crooning, while her flashy guitar work — another useful antidote to artsy excess — is merely a tantalizing ingredient in a slightly overcooked stew.

Instead, the primary force here is a heavy brass presence: sometimes James Brown-funky, sometimes funereal, sometimes playful in the mode of Moondog, sometimes evocative of rousing Brooklyn faves Antibalas and the Dap-Kings, both of whom have cameos on the delightfully jaunty “The One Who Broke Your Heart.” As with Clark herself, though, the horns bend to Byrne’s more cerebral gravitational pull, and generally don’t offer the visceral oomph of a sweaty sax or rude trumpet. The result is more hypothetical than visceral.

Throughout Giant‘s 12 tracks, you can practically hear the duo’s brains whirring like overheated laptops as they work to reconcile gut emotions and self-conscious craft. Spooky and breathless, “The Forest Awakes” juxtaposes the natural world with societal artifice, and surely provides Walt Whitman (1819-1892) with his only indie-rock songwriting credit in recent memory. Riding a stomping beat, “Lightning” explores the sinister side of uncontrollable forces, with Clark wailing anxiously, “If I should wake up and find my home’s in half? / Who did it?/ Oh nature, I hope you have a laugh.” Byrne delivers a haunting, supremely sad meditation on “I Am an Ape,” concluding, “I will not last, I too shall pass.” The darkly funny “Dinner for Two” brilliantly contrasts a fancy dinner party with armed street conflict, and Byrne finally blows his cool on the frantic “I Should Watch TV,” sneering at the boob tube and admitting he used to believe “it would set me free.” Intimations of elitism aside, it’s downright bracing to hear sparks fly for once.

Alas, Byrne and Clark rarely interact vocally, sometimes suggesting two solo outings spliced together; and the grooves have an anonymous vibe — indicating, perhaps, the need for less programming and more actual drums. A champion of Brazilian music, Byrne knows how such great performers as Caetano Veloso satisfy both head and heart, yet he struggles to escape his own brain here, and Clark does, too. Still, Love This Giant, with all its promise and limitations, is only one part of the process for the pair, who are taking the album (horns and all) on tour. Onstage, if they add some heat to enticing songs like “Ice Age” and “Lazarus,” everything might start to cook for real. In that case, look for an essential live album next.