Fading away, trying to stay
David Byrne is a creative and explorative musician. He is best known as the lead singer and songwriter of the Talking Heads, an influential group founded in the ’70’s that synthesized funk, pop, and African music. Some also dub him a pioneer of sampling — the art of recontextualizing snippets of old music into new material — for his 1981 collaboration with producer Brian Eno, titled My Life in the Bush of Ghost. Though he’s Scottish-born and -educated, he’s a priceless gem in the development of style and technique in American popular music.
In the summer of this year, Byrne and Eno released a record together titled Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. The record is hit or miss: Exciting moments feature gritty, industrial production with saucy lyrics about living fast and dying happy. But there’s lethargy, too. When Byrne is introspective, the music feels more like a power ballad. On “Life is Long,” Byrne sings, “Life is long — if you give it way/So stay, don’t go, ’cause I’m fading away/Soul to soul between you and me/Chain me down but I am still free.” These are the words of a musician trying to uphold a feeling of artistic liberty and personal strength. However, it misses the mark: Instead of a sense of release and passion, there’s a feeling of self-pity and excessive romanticism.
Now Byrne is touring in support of this record, while revisiting older Byrne and Eno material and a few hits from the Talking Heads along the way. His Friday night show at Carnegie Music Hall was a trip through the various identities of Byrne’s colorful career as a songwriter and singer. Like Bob Dylan and Miles Davis, Byrne’s musical voice has changed constantly throughout his 35-year career. Unlike Dylan and Davis, however, Byrne conjures up different personas on the turn of a dime. On “My Big Nurse,” a new tune, Byrne croons like a young Leonard Cohen. Then, on “Life During Wartime,” a Talking Heads hit, he lets a rap-like growl, somewhere between David Bowie and Chuck D.
Byrne, who is also a celebrated photographer and filmmaker, has allowed his passion for visuals to creep into his live performances. Instead of the generic series of movies screening behind his band, Byrne prefers quirky stage antics, like dancing with a lamp and wearing an oversized suit. His show in Pittsburgh was no different. Wearing all white, he and his backup dancers paired backflips with energetic songs. On the slower tunes, the band played seated in office chairs, drifting in carefully choreographed circles.
Though Byrne has music and dance for most moods, his hottest music is undoubtedly with the Talking Heads. “Crosseyed and Painless” began with a slow, eerie introduction that crept its way into pulsing funk. Byrne’s lyricism is just as edgy as the music: “Facts just twist the truth around/Facts are living turned inside out.” There’s restlessness and immediacy here; even the older folks at Friday night’s show were on their feet and dancing (for the moment, onstage choreography was extraneous).
In a snide way, it’s a shame that Byrne tried to pair this music with the Talking Heads alongside his solo work. His new material is at times frustratingly simple and unexciting. Even with an electric bassist steeped in funk and a hard-hitting percussionist, Byrne’s set often drifted into downtempo rock music, sounding more like ’90’s pop-rock than the musical innovator that he once was. Then, just when you’d begin to lose focus, or worse, get bored, he’d barrel through another Talking Heads tune. Sure, this would add a jolt of energy to the set, but also make you realize how big a deficit there was between “old” and “new.”
After a cover of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River,” another Talking Heads staple, Byrne and his band emerged one last time for “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.” Here, there’s no drum, and just sprinkles of guitar and bass. Byrne and his three backup singers — who used African-like harmonies a la Paul Simon’s “Graceland” — delivered the closing lines, “Nothing has changed, but nothing’s the same/And every tomorrow could be yesterday/And everything that happens will happen today.” He’s less definitive here than other parts of the new record, but more genuine in his conflictions about developing as a person and musician. David Byrne may be fading away, but he’s working hard to fight it.