In the quarter-century since Laurie Anderson premiered “United States,” an epic performance art piece chronicling the state of the union — and determining it to be not so great — a good many of the situations she examined have come full circle in the morphing of the Reagan era into the Bush era. As such, Anderson opted to take a second look around, resulting in “Homeland,” a considerably more focused and concise, but similarly emotionally overwhelming piece that had its official premiere at Lincoln Center on Tuesday night.
Unlike its precursor, “Homeland” is largely an aural experience — as Anderson emphasized by setting the piece on a bare stage illuminated mostly by dozens of votive candles that flickered softly on all sides. The starkness proved bracing during the more ethereal pieces, notably the ruminative “The Lark” — a tone poem of sorts about an era when birds ruled the universe and terra firma did not yet exist — and the serpentine “Callin’ ‘Em Up,” which suggested a post-millennial take on the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Anderson’s socio-political ruminations occasionally crossed the line into heavy-handedness, particularly when she focused on specifics, naming names and referencing debates likely to be forgotten by the time the piece is captured for perpetuity — as it should be. She’s capable of creating such nuanced narratives about provocative topics that it’s disappointing when she lapses into musings about something as pedestrian as America’s obsession with youth and beauty, the gist of “Underwear Gods.”
The 100-minute piece did have more than its share of intellectually transporting moments, however. Cleverly referencing Tom Paine and Kierkegaard in songs as expansive as any she’s ever crafted, Anderson set a mood that was tense, but in a welcome manner. Thanks in part to Joey Baron’s remarkably fluid percussive work, the ensemble was able to flit from ambient shimmer to skittish syncopation redolent of Gotham’s mid-’80s avant-punk scene with ease.
Towards set’s end, Anderson brought out husband Lou Reed — a first for her — to duet on “The Lost Art of Conversation,” a sort of negative-image “I Got You Babe” that honed in on angst and disconnection, rather than unseverable bonds. The song didn’t fully coalesce with the rest of “Homeland” in terms of subject, but the spirit — that of blinders-off realism and haunting introspection — remained constant.