Graded on a Curve:
David Byrne,
Grown Backwards

Let’s give a round of applause to David Byrne. He’s been on a long quest for musical irrelevance, and for the most part he’s succeeded. Once upon a time Byrne was the leader of arguably the best rock band in the world. But since the breakup of the Talking Heads in 1988 Byrne has become an art rock gadfly with world music inclinations. He has sung Pan-American dance music. He has sung opera. Rumor has it he is ready to release an album of Euro-disco hillbilly music with Giorgio Moroder and Bloodshot Bill.

Byrne’s dilettantism has come at a cost. Incalculable music listeners—Talking Heads fanatics amongst them—tuned Byrne out long ago. Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel have both reached a mass audience by incorporating world music into their work. Byrne did it himself in a big way with Remain in Light. But Byrne’s solo work has left him an artist on the fringe. You’ll never hear his music on the radio—I’ve never even heard it on college radio. None of which matters much if 1) he doesn’t much care that he’s sloughed off fans the way a snake sloughs off its skin (he’s always been a cold-blooded creature, our David) and 2) the music he produces is top quality.

I’m relatively certain Byrne is okay with the snake comparison; unfortunately the body of work he’s produced has been uneven at best. None of his solo works come close to meeting the exacting standards of the Talking Heads. The solo Byrne has created no More Songs About Buildings and Food or Remain in Light. Idiosyncratic, sure. But plenty of artists create idiosyncratic music that needs be listened to.

And so it goes with Byrnes’ seventh LP, 2004’s Grown Backwards, which enthralled just about no one. There’s a reason the album peaked at No. 178 in the US charts, and it certainly wasn’t for lack of name recognition or the goodwill of faithful Talking Heads fans. The LP fails because the music doesn’t grab you and the work as a whole doesn’t cohere. To call Grown Backwards eclectic is paying it too great a compliment. Hot mess would be a more appropriate description.

It speaks volumes about Grown Backwards that its best track is a cover of off-kilter country blue-eyed soul outfit Lambchop’s “The Man Who Loved Beer.” And Byrne doesn’t exactly nail it—his voice is too mannered New York sophisticate to pull it off. After that excellent songs are thin on the ground. “Glass, Concrete & Stone” is old school Byrne; a lovely melody, surreal lyrics, and marimba and percussion lend it an exotic touch. The funky “Dialog Box” could be a Remain in Light B-Side—it generates some of the energy that came so easily to Byrne back in his golden years. The same goes for the up-tempo “The Other Side of Light,” which succeeds for the most part on sweeping cello, kitchen implements, and cowbell.

“Tiny Apocalypse” is more retro Talking Heads, and would fit quite nicely on one of the band’s hardly enthralling final two albums. The lyrics are great, the rhythm is tres exotic, and in this case that Grown Backwards should probably be Looking Backward. Finally we have the regal “Empire,” with its organ and horn fanfare. I’m going to let the fact that I’ve heard those horns before pass, at least until I remember where and blow the whistle on David’s shameless plagiarism.

After that? A bunch of songs seemingly pulled from the ether that I will never listen to again. “Glad” is a lightweight Broadway show tune. The finger snaps and lyrics (theme: his girl fucks everything in sight but she only sleeps with David) are the only things redeeming “She Only Sleeps.” The sole positive thing to be said for the nostalgic moon in June tune “Pirates” are lyrics like “Ahoy, it’s pirates on parade.”

“Why” also carries a whiff of Broadway. “Civilization” is great if accordion is your thing and can buy Byrne as a sophisticated cave dweller. The swanky “Astronaut” must be intergalactic because it has a Theremin in it. “Lazy” features the Tosca Strings—whoever they are—and segues from 1960’s TV cop show theme to stiff white guy funk rap. Finally we have the hot opera number “Au Fond du Temple Saint,” which is at home on the album as Plácido Domingo is on Foghat’s Fool for the City.

The post-Talking Heads Byrne is a incorrigible dabbler, and an inessential one at that—he has produced but one must-listen LP over the course of his solo career, the 1981 Eno collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Compare that with his old band, only one of whose LPs—1988’s Naked—belong in every record collection. It’s not as if his solo work is taking him anywhere—there’s no progression as was the case with the Talking Heads. He’s simply wandering from whim to whim, on (to cite the title of an old Talking Heads song) the road to nowhere.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D+

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