Byrne underwhelms on American Utopia


Harrison Glaze

Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne released his new solo album American Utopia earlier this month, spearheaded by single “Everybody’s Coming to My House.” Unfortunately, the rest of the album fails to live up to the lead song’s potential.

Harrison Glaze, Reporter

Since the breakup of the Talking Heads, one of America’s leading alternative rock bands of the 1980s, lead singer David Byrne has undeniably kept himself busy. From a Latin-inspired world collection to a disco opera based on the life of a former first lady of the Philippines and co-developed with “Praise You” hitmaker Fatboy Slim, Byrne’s post-Heads oeuvre ranges from the typical, to the daringly experimental, to the simply silly. On his new album American Utopia, part of Byrne’s pro-optimism multimedia project Reasons to Be Cheerful, he and producer Brian Eno seek to build an unashamedly cheery experimental-pop tour de force for the world of 2018. Whether Byrne succeeds in this bold mission constitutes another matter altogether.

The album opens with the unpromising “I Dance Like This,” a delightfully quirky but vaguely ridiculous and lyrically simplistic tune that seemingly exists solely to defend Byrne’s unusual stage moves. He tackles somewhat more serious material on the intriguing but similarly underwhelming “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets.”

Next comes “Every Day Is A Miracle,” a somewhat charming but painfully absurd faux-reggae curiosity blending Smiths-esque humor and baffling barnyard animal analogies. At this point one begins to suspect that Byrne may have spent too much time of late reading up on his zoology, as he follows up with “Dog’s Mind,” a confused and disappointing attempt at social commentary that never seems sure who or what the titular dogs represent. Byrne finally returns to more recognizably human subject matter on the decent if unspectacular love song “This Is That,” which beats its predecessors on the album but still pales considerably in comparison to Byrne’s other work.

Not a moment too soon, Byrne partially finds his groove on “It’s Not Dark Up Here,” a refreshingly funky return to form that recalls the Heads’ smash hit “Burning Down the House.” The momentum does not last, though, as Byrne follows with “Bullet,” a lyrically focused experimental-techno piece that intrigues the listener but fails to make a coherent point.

The eighth track, “Doing the Right Thing,” constitutes one of the album’s strongest songs musically. Unfortunately, it somewhat lacks in matching lyrical content, with vague platitudes and repetitive calls to action taking the place of any meaningful insight.

Just when one finds it tempting to give up on the whole album, Byrne scores a surprise success with “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” which launches a brilliantly brutal attack on shallow suburban existence over a beat worthy of the artist’s Talking Heads glory days. Unfortunately, American Utopia has already almost reached its finish, and it does so with a whimper—namely “Here,” a fairly satisfying but nonetheless disappointing mock-epic close to the album.

From a performer of Byrne’s reputation and caliber, American Utopia cannot help but come as a tremendous and unexpected letdown. Its attempts at experimentation, rather than adding an air of intrigue, rob most of the album’s songs of any recognizable tune or beat, and Byrne’s lyricism, once brilliant and incisive in its own quirky way, now seems to retain only the quirkiness without any of the other attributes. From the lush soundscapes and vivid emotion of the Talking Heads, Byrne has descended into a hollow and deeply disappointing wasteland of forgettable rhythms and tired metaphors far less than the sum of their parts—more dystopia than utopia. Make no mistake: “Everybody’s Coming to My House” serves as both an infectious thought-provoker on its own and a worthy addition to Byrne’s body of work. One simply wonders why Byrne felt the need to build a whole album around it.

The Chant’s Grade: D+