“The rose is pruned to a perfect shape / Perfect for whom? I wonder.”
So sings David Byrne early on “American Utopia,” his first solo album in 14 years, and it’s hard to think of a better representation of Byrne’s entire artistic approach. From his tenure as the front man and creative driver of Talking Heads through his wildly variegated solo career, Byrne has always been a meticulous musical craftsman and a keen observer of human nature. But like some sort of imperfectly programmed translation software, Byrne has an uncanny ability to take in the bric-a-brac of modern life and spit it out in gloriously misshapen form – viewed from a perspective never before considered, spoken in a tongue that is his alone.
Keeping in mind that such notions are relative where Byrne is concerned, “American Utopia” features the musician at his most earnest, relaxed and straightforward. The jagged-edged anxiety of his Talking Heads days has been smoothed into a sort of openhearted curiosity, the dadaist mantras giving way to koans and sociological musings. Some of this is perhaps due to the milestone Byrne crossed prior to the album’s recording: Born in Scotland, Byrne has lived in the U.S. since childhood but only recently became an American citizen, and was active in voter registration drives during the 2016 election. That experience, however obliquely addressed, is all over this record, from disappointment with the election’s result to the heady rush of engagement that comes with finally being an active participant.
Though most of the tracks on “Utopia” started in a familiar place — with Byrne building songs out of drum tracks created by longtime producer and kindred spirit Brian Eno — the musician’s typical restlessness makes the album a continually unpredictable listen. Fragments of West African, Caribbean and Brazilian rhythms are rarely absent for long, but little here lends itself to easy categorization. Opener “I Dance Like This” alternates gentle, simple piano balladry on the verses with a sort of mutant-Devo grind on the choruses. “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” rides a breezy groove reminiscent of Byrne and Eno’s 2008 almost-pop-hit “Strange Overtones,” only to arrive at a teasingly unresolved melody in the refrain. The most bombastic of the album’s tracks, “Doing the Right Thing” builds from low string riffs to a glorious explosion of synths.
Yet the focus throughout is squarely on Byrne’s inimitable croon — at 65, his voice is remarkably pristine — and his often defiantly optimistic lyrics. Rather than dwell on the horrors of the Trump era, he opts to take a more expansive view, frequently reaching for gardening metaphors and snatches of Seussian metaphysics. “Dog’s Mind” imagines a presidential inauguration as seen from a canine perspective, while “Every Day Is a Miracle” is full of oddball bons mots. (“The brain is a soft-boiled potato”; “the pope don’t mean s–t to a dog.”) There’s still plenty of room for darkness — the downtempo “Bullet” offers a stark, anatomical description of a bullet passing through a human body, and stands as perhaps the most politically relevant song on the record — but there’s enough hope and joy here to take Byrne at his word that the phrase “American Utopia” should be read without irony.
At times, particularly during the more meditative middle stretch, the album can be easier to admire than to love. “It’s Not Dark Up Here” starts promisingly but doesn’t add flesh to its loose framework. In contrast, “This Is That,” one of several collaborations with enigmatic composer Oneohtrix Point Never, is a treasure trove of sonic pleasures geared for close headphone listening, but the bones of the song beneath them never quite seem to connect.
But when Byrne’s themes and his compositions cohere, the results are wonderful to behold. Penultimate track “Everybody’s Coming to My House” captures perhaps the essence of his music — it’s an instantly infectious, insistently rhythmic song that nonetheless has enough of an edge to make you hesitate to actually dance to it. A clear descendant of Talking Heads’ 1980 masterpiece “Remain in Light,” the song sees Byrne once again taking stock of his life as though witnessing it from a passive remove, but here the outlook has changed. “We’re only tourists in this life,” he sings, “only tourists, but the view is nice.” The 28-year-old who wrote “Once in a Lifetime” may have fruitlessly asked himself, “How did I get here?” and his 65-year-old counterpart has grown no closer to finding an answer. The difference now, however, is that Byrne no longer assumes he needs one.