David Byrne’s American Utopia Gets Caught Between Pop and Experimentation
American Utopia is the first David Byrne release to be billed as a pure solo album since 2004’s Grown Backwards, but it has more in common with Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his joint effort with Brian Eno from four years later. Like that album, American Utopia is filled with short and simply written songs, their pensive verses bursting into jubilant choruses on a fairly reliable schedule. Byrne has been working sporadically but confidently in this mode since Talking Heads released their sixth album Little Creatures in 1985. American Utopia contains several solid entries into Byrne’s pop songwriting canon, but few revelations. Whimsical and surprisingly optimistic, it finds him following several different impulses at once.
Much of Byrne’s best work with the Talking Heads placed groove and atmosphere on equal footing with chords and melody, and at times on American Utopia, you can hear him and his collaborators attempting similar breaks with established song form. Occasionally, as when opener “I Dance Like This” sheds its piano ballad skin to become a synth-rock stomper, the results are legitimately surprising. Just as often, these detours are perfunctory and noncommittal, brief incursions of strangeness into music that feels destined to resolve itself traditionally.
According to a recent Uproxx interview with Byrne, the album began life when Eno sent him a series of instrumental tracks and asked him to add vocals, a similar process to that of the Everything sessions. Eno’s name isn’t on the cover this time because of what happened next: Byrne invited an impressive cast of collaborators to add their own touches to the tracks, including both little-known session players and big names like Oneohtrix Point Never and Sampha. At some point, Eno gracefully bowed bow out. “Not that he didn’t influence them to an incredible degree, but…he was sort of like, ‘You own these now, not me. This is not a joint ownership,’” Byrne told Uproxx. “That was very generous of him. I mean, he could have reacted in a less friendly way and said, ‘You’ve run away with this stuff.’
The resulting album adds more electronics and instrumental flourishes to Everything’s wistful guitar-based sonics, an inconsistent palette that’s alternately poppier and more adventurous than its most direct predecessor. “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” exemplifies the former aspect, riding the same sort of dancehall- and Afrobeats-inspired midtempo shuffle that powers so many Top 40 entries from the last two years or so, with a few heavily reverbed “Hey!” shouts thrown in for good measure. It’s jarring and a little awkward to an artist as restless as Byrne on a track that sounds so much like the radio, but he pulls it off, delivering elliptical musings on freedom and commercialism with the brio of a twentysomething singing about love and sex. He’s been working thoughtfully with Jamaican and Nigerian rhythms since before the likes of Ed Sheeran and Dua Lipa were born, so we can permit him this dalliance with their watered-down 2018 equivalent. “Every Day Is a Miracle,” which features synth and guitar from dancefloor avant-gardist Jam City, is stranger and better for it, with the album’s most playful lyrics (“A cockroach might eat Mona Lisa / The pope don’t mean shit to a dog”) and a chorus as uplifting as any Byrne has written.
Byrne’s most active collaborator on American Utopia aside from Eno was Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never, who provided flickering digital noise on five songs, two of which he co-wrote with Byrne. Much like Byrne and Eno at the height of their partnership in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Lopatin works at the fault line between popular and experimental music, mining sounds that are frequently more compelling than those of his peers planted firmly on either side. On the final track “Here,” one of Lopatin’s compositions, Byrne sings gospel for the smartphone era, harmonizing with himself and elongating his syllables, no longer just a singer with a backing track, immersed in the music’s celestial clatter. American Utopia’s lyrics are largely concerned with imagining a world stranger and more beautiful than ours. As the album draws to a close, the sound of that world finally emerges.