The first proper solo album from David Byrne in fourteen years finds the former Talking Heads frontman sounding amazing vocally while experimenting with sounds and lyrics; not always hitting the complete musical mark.
There is a constant push and pull between the organic and the programmed throughout American Utopia and it is on display with the very first song, “I Dance Like This”. The track starts soothing with pianos and Byrne’s glorious voice before techno beats blast in for the chorus in jarring fashion. This marriage of orchestral tendencies with programmed beats is constant; “Bullet” uses this same style with strings before even inserting a few digital samples.
The most successful complete effort is the album’s first single “Everybody’s Coming To My House” which combines all of what Byrne was shooting for along with contributors Brian Eno, Happa Isaiah Barr, Sampha, and TTY. The song starts with angular horn work and digital bleeps before a full on rave-up breaks out. The horns color things but it is the heavy dance track that grooves and soars with confidence, easily the album highlight. The modern sounding “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” also strikes a chord possibly addressing current refugee issues all around the world while “Doing The Right Thing” contains a gorgeous digital build up after strings and hand drums along with confident singing has set the tone, even with ridiculous lyrical content.
For an artist who famously titled his old band’s second record More Songs About Buildings and Food, Byrne is never afraid to sing about the mundane or odd, in fact sounding so great doing just that is a major part of his appeal. However, a few songs here seem to go off the lyrical deep end.
“Every Day is a Miracle” begins it with a fascination about animals projecting what chickens think about God and proclaiming the Pope doesn’t mean shit to a dog, completely taking away from the excellent musical backing while “Dog’s Mind” dives deeper into that world making some sort of political statement from a dog’s point of view before we are all living in our own doggie paradise. “It’s Not Dark Up Here” has some of the best grooves on the disk, but lyrically is all over the map with questions that don’t add up to anything. All this is part of Byrnes point as he admits he has no sure-fire answers during these modern times and this record is part of a larger Reasons To Be Cheerful project he is working on.
Byrnes pristine vocals can still make singing about simple things invigorating (check out album closer “Here”) but too often on the brief album, the lyrics remove the listener from the song. The track “This Is That” again uses that push and pull bouncing back and forth between ominous digital beats and twinkling strings while singing about “nothing special and nothing profound”. This sums up American Utopia succinctly.