No one has ever walked out of a theater humming a Laurie Anderson tune. While her music is capable of poignant resonance, she is most effective when working on a big canvas; the payoff of her music comes not in individual hooks or melodies but through juxtaposition and accrual of detail. “Life on a String” (Nonesuch), her first album of songs in six years, feels like pieces in search of a concept, notebook jottings that could use further development. Suffering from some of the same problems, her current tour feels like “The Portable Laurie Anderson,” an overview of her career that’s inexpensive to mount and gives a taste of her particular art.
But if you weren’t already clued in, you’d be hard pressed to explain her appeal. Covering her entire career, from early songs “O Superman” and “Let X = X,” but focusing on the new album, the show felt slight at barely 90 minutes long. Anderson managed to go through 20 songs and monologues without making a strong case for herself as a songwriter.
A product of the late 1970s and early ’80s downtown New York art scene, her music shares certain similarities with another music from the same city and era — rap. They both eschew traditional song structures for bare-boned grooves; instead of old songs, however, Anderson samples speech, from airline announcements to small talk to “I’m a Little Tea Pot.” And rather than worry about keepin’ it real, Anderson muses about the nature of reality, or in her more recent work, narrative itself.
Still elfin at 54, Anderson has a wryly deadpan stage presence, and her ability to structure and tell a story are undiminished. The most effective moments were her brief monologues, where her mind could wander through germs, evolution, spiders and romantic disappointments or find echoes between the Communist Manifesto and Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.”