David Byrne Needs to Open Up Again


The Talking Heads' singer's new album with St. Vincent, Love This Giant, and his new book, How Music Works, are smart, calculated works that don't say very much.

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I'm a little disappointed in David Byrne.

This isn't easy for me to write. I fell in love with Talking Heads as a teenager and then followed the band's cofounder and front man every step of his solo career. I really dug some of his recent releases, like his 2008 collaboration with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Some of Byrne's public art, like the enormous globe he squished under New York City's High Line park and programmed to emit groans and deep rumbles, has been, like Byrne's best music, surprising, funny, and dark. I love Byrne's bike activism and his Internet radio station. I could go on.

Despite my fandom, I found myself underwhelmed and unmoved as I made my way through his two latest works: the album Love This Giant, a collaboration with Annie Clark, who records under the moniker St. Vincent, and his book How Music Works (McSweeney's), both out this week. And even though Byrne writes in How Music Works that "we sometimes discern cause and effect simply because things are taking place at the same time," I can't help but see a shared flaw in these simultaneous releases: They're just not personal enough.

The bemused, avuncular, wise-artist role he's perfected of late is as much an act as his younger, awkward, nervous self.

As far as the book goes, this impersonal approach seems deliberate. How Music Works isn't a memoir but a textbook of sorts: a master class in music theory, history, and practice, replete with pie charts, illustrations, and photographs, and with chapters that can be read in any order.

Byrne considers how the things around a song—the venue in which it's performed, the manner in which it's recorded in the studio, the way in which it's listened to—to be equal in importance to the song itself. "Music is made of sound waves that we encounter at specific times and places," he writes. "The music experience is not just those sound waves, but the context in which they occur as well."

Much of it reads as a brilliant and wide-ranging how-to guide for aspiring musicians. Byrne—who, ever since Talking Heads dissolved in the early '90s, has positioned himself as an elder statesman of artsy rock, championing pop acts from around the world along with up-and-comers like Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire—provides candid advice about the morphing music business, including the expense and revenue reports of his last two releases, and online distribution models.

To be sure, business has been on Byrne's mind for a long time. From the start of his career, perhaps because of his interest in the visual arts, he mastered what we now call branding. He thought deeply about and experimented with what he wore on stage, and sometimes failed. (He refers to his early fashion of sporting old suits and an unkempt beard as his "Amish look.") The buttoned-up, clean-cut style he and the rest of Talking Heads adopted was a way of standing out from glam and big-hair arena rock bands. In similar contrariness, on stage Talking Heads made a performance out of not performing. When it came to lighting, their instructions to clubs consisted of, "Turn them all on at the beginning and turn them off at the end." Byrne introduced songs with a jittery awkwardness and lack of patter—most shows he only said "The name of this song is —," and "Thank you."

In the early '80s, when Byrne encountered Japanese Kabuki and Balinese puppet theater, these minimal gestures grew grander and became more choreographed, though they never changed all that much. On the tour captured in the film Stop Making Sense, Bryne's outfit became ridiculously big, but was still a plain-gray suit—about the most un-rocking costume one could imagine a rock star wearing. It's the outfit of someone going to work.

Which, Byrne suggests, is how he sees himself—as a laborer whose job is to bring forth music. He writes that, "Making music is like constructing a machine whose function is to dredge up emotions in performer and listener alike." To hear him tell it, recording is all technique and no artistry.

That's the problem. Byrne is not only a musician, but also a writer. He choses to say things in his songs. And those things drew me and presumably others to his work more than, or at least as much as, the music itself did.

In his earliest songs, he comes across as a brainiac on the edge of the party, a wallflower looking in at human behavior, often with derision. "They say compassion is a virtue, but I don't have the time," he sings on the Talking Heads '77 song "No Compassion." Is that sentiment awful and pretentious? Maybe. But who doesn't feel like that sometimes? On albums like Fear of Music and Remain in Light, his paranoid conspiracy theories—the air can hurt you, a person's appearance might shift by sheer force of will, facts aren't to be trusted, especially in emergencies—pit the individual against a scary, mysterious world, raising both smiles and anxiety. On the lighter side, he celebrates helpful parents on the song "Pulled Up," and on "This Must be the Place (Naive Melody)" from Speaking in Tongues expresses love in sweetly sincere terms.

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At his best, Byrne's a sophisticated, literary wordsmith, and I would be interested in seeing him analyze his own lyrical content and its development over time. What advice does he have for young musicians struggling to find their voice, I wonder.

But no, in How Music Works Byrne doesn't go much into the songs he's written, aside from a few very interesting paragraphs that summarize his process of drafting "Once in a Lifetime," among a couple of other tunes. He avoids discussing the decisions behind his wording, and rejects the idea that his language has meaning in and of itself, apart from the music:

In the West, the presumption of a causal link between the author and performer is strong. For instance, it's assumed that I write lyrics (and the accompanying music) for songs because I have something I need to express. And it's assumed that everything one utters or sings (or even plays) emerges from some autobiographical impulse. Even if I choose to sing someone else's song, it's assumed that the song was, when it was written, autobiographical for them, and I am both acknowledging the fact and at the same time implying that it's applicable to my own biography. Nonsense!

Talk about death of the author—this is suicide. He goes on: "...it is the music and the lyrics that trigger the emotions within us, rather than the other way around. We don't make music—it makes us."

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Brian Gresko is a writer based in Brooklyn. He has contributed to The Huffington PostSalonThe Daily BeastThe Paris Review DailyThe MillionsAGNI OnlineThe Iowa Review Online, The Good Men Project, and Glimmer Train Stories.

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