There’s always been a deep vein of poignancy running through the work of Laurie Anderson; a soulfulness that comes out in her contradictory impulses to both embrace and remain wary of modern technology, and her unerring instincts as a storyteller. But she has never sounded as mournful as she does in her latest production, “Homeland,” which received its Los Angeles premiere Thursday night as part of this season’s UCLA Live.
A powerful song cycle that seamlessly moves from recitations to songs, performed on a dark stage with Anderson and her three-piece band surrounded by nearly 100 votive candles, the 100-minute, intermissionless piece is suffused with death. From the opening monologue, a gloss on Aristophanes’ “The Birds” (where the death of a lark is the beginning of memory), to a grandmother laid out in a coffin “that looks like a piano,” to the literally haunted “Transitory Life” where uprooted Americans are accompanied by ghosts, “Homeland” is a kind of funeral mass for American freedoms. “Was the Constitution written in invisible ink?” she asks.
The opening pieces of “Homeland” survey a country where things have gone terribly wrong: It’s “a good time for business, especially if your business is war,” and the halls of government are filled with self-styled “bad men” — generals, rapacious businessmen, torturers — who all speak the same language.
They’re advised by experts who create crises “that only an expert can deal with” and are locked in a war fought on all sides by children.They brush off the cries of civil libertarians because “there’s no place for freedom when war is here to stay.”
The security apparatus that’s been put into place only makes things worse: Airport checkpoints have turned “what should have been fun — taking off your clothes in public — into something grim.”
As she continues, the focus moves from institutions to people, and the troubles at the top have trickled down. Personal relationships are under siege, people talk at each other (“The Lost Art of Conversation”) and worship “the underwear gods,” the “enormous, but perfect” figures on billboards. But when they step down from their perches to walk the city streets, they are outsized, bringing panic and fear in their wake.
The decline is so slow, we don’t even notice, but “everything comes crawling down.”
The music that accompanies the vignettes and songs is some of the loveliest that Anderson has ever written — a low thrum occasionally punctuated by chilly angelic choruses, elegiac violin and cello duets and the repeated arpeggios of Peter Scherer’s keyboards, which split the difference between Philip Glass and the Doors. Like the narratives it accompanies, the sound’s grave but not without wit; measured and dispassionate, but not without heart. “Homeland” reinforces Anderson’s place as the best interpreter of our troubled times.
Anderson’s “Homeland” will play five performances July 22-26 as part of New York’s Lincoln Center Festival.