David Byrne has started making sense. He, too, must change, he says, we all must adapt and remodel ourselves to the ebb and flow of society’s needs for us. As such, the austere role of the artist molds around the very premise of our need for artists. In David Byrne’s indispensable memoir / grandiose music history tome, How Music Works (2012), he discusses how music shifts priorities based on the context in which we engage with it. The large sounds of classical music, with its benefits of giant concert halls that required full orchestras to fill with sounds as grand as their spaces. The way punk rock music was made for CBGB — termed Country Bluegrass Blues, we come to understand the evolution of style — and intimate platforms that are equal parts loud and fun. How terrestrial radio gave form to classic rock that feels good to drive to, and then the speakers begged for bass-heavy rap to signal our presence and vitality. Then, the music became more intimate, distinctly personal with the advent of earbuds as artists forged one-to-one relationships with the listener. And then what is next? The reinvention of musical purpose, to represent the streaming potential and ease of access, for music to capture perfectly the feeling of the day. When he wrote the book, he said nobody had figured the next stage out very well and was surprised the music hadn’t yet changed. Now he has returned and changed the music, realizing the same words sung in a different context and a new band radically alters the meaning.
Byrne is an immigrant, he tells us, and this band would not happen without immigrants. His new touring Broadway band has been compiled with members from Paris to Brazil, a diverse range that represents the true America. Staged barefooted and with matching classic ironic suits, a stylistic choice is made. The premise is that nothing is as interesting as watching a human, stripping down to the bare essentials, with nothing plugged in, his percussionists equipped like a marching band, everyone moves and participates in a sharply choreographed dance. The beautiful synchronicity of it all, the oneness of the band, represents only the commonalities of the people. The context of music Byrne has cultivated is the America of Now.
Ezra Pound once noted, “Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance… poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from the music.” What American Utopia does is combines them as a singular dance. Tapping into a rich tapestry of sound, Byrne is in conversation with his older work, the multicultural building blocks of sound, new wave but distinctly influenced by pan-African rhythms. The moment of change, when the musician retakes his context, is a moment of humbling inspiration. He wrote Janelle Monáe asking what would she think of a “white man of a certain age” covering her rallying song, “Hell You Talmbout”. She said the song was for everyone. The cover here offers a transcendent moment of catharsis. The band equalizes, everyone shares the same stakes in the song. “Say their name,” Byrne commands, as alive and prescient as he has ever been.
What comes with such a moment is a profound appreciation for Black culture. Directed by Spike Lee, the HBO special revolves tightly around the movements of the moment. In a touching moment of solidarity, the whole band takes a knee and raises their fists, backdropped by a portrait of Colin Kaepernick doing the same. It’s not saying Make America Great Again but that the country is already beautiful, that we share a commonality, of being from somewhere else, and the culmination of our collective ideas, is the quintessential core of American Greatness.
For Spike Lee’s part, he directs the hell out of the stage show. The sparse backdrop allows for an active camera, that can roll and cut to heighten specific details within the frame. Lee finds the most charming and specific nuances within the performance. When Byrne says the performance is a kind of communication, between audience and artist, Lee deeply understands how to connect the pieces. There is the deep moving energy of transference, an awareness that while it is being performed, and now that it has been preserved for posterity, it belongs to everyone. Significantly, it beautifully captures the spirit of New York, the universality of the city, a united consciousness, and togetherness that is so hard to perfectly capture.
It is almost impossible to recapture the exuberant performance art of Stop Making Sense (1984), where Jonathan Demme defined the full potential of a concert film. The core problem is that the material there represents the peak of a career, the very moment where Talking Heads reached their zenith, a complete catalog of their most important songs, given infinitely new life. American Utopia, as an album, simply never reaches the heights of peak Talking Heads. By leaning into the back catalog, it is occasionally able to render something like an approximation of that unattainable magic. The music is the same as it ever was — when the new band launches into “This Must Be the Place”, this critic’s favorite song by anyone, it does not sound like Talking Heads. It sounds vital and brand new. It becomes less about meeting the same singular demands of Stop Making Sense — the song is no longer a love song sung to a lamp — but it’s now about making all the good old music inclusive, a love song to anyone.
The topic of nonsense poetry is a reoccurring theme of American Utopia. Such a fixation so aptly defines what makes Byrne tick. The frantic movements and yelps. The asides about the brain and how as we age, we lose connections that were once available to us. The new idea is to connect us all through inclusivity. It does not have to make sense. Life doesn’t make sense. Our world almost certainly does not make sense. Through the new context of nonsense poetic verse and performance art, Byrne still makes the best sense of it all.