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.

david byrne 615 reuters.jpg

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.

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.

Story continues below.

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."

Uh, no. We, people, do in fact make music, and there are countless examples of musicians producing work after huge life changes that reflect those changes in either atmosphere or lyrical approach if not in one-to-one autobiographical detail. (Blood on the Tracks springs to mind.) It's strange to see Byrne act as though this isn't the case, when his own career seems to prove otherwise. In fact, later in the book, he says that the personal tone of his 1994 self-titled solo-album was in part a response to a death in the family.

Instead of owning up, Byrne takes a mystical route to lyrics, saying that when writing he collaborates with his unconscious, and that something deeper—perhaps god, perhaps alien—speaks through him. In part, this stems from an approach to writing Byrne's used at least since 1979's Fear of Music, of building a vocal track from nonsense words sung to the music. From that gibberish, he begins to ascribe language, often trying to match phonemes with the sounds he sang. In How Music Works, and in the liner notes to the 2005 reissued Talking Heads albums, one sees pages filled with lists of non-sequiturs. After much revision the final song emerges. The goal seems to be finding the right sounds to match the music rather than setting out to say something.

But there's a person's hand at work in this process, a person Byrne has kept off stage lately. In Love This Giant's songs, much of the theory he lays forth in How Music Works plays out, for better and for worse.

Thinking about venue when composing music? Check. Byrne and Clark began work for a proposed benefit concert, and decided to make music for brass and woodwinds because it would work well for the space. Using an online distribution model? Check again. The duo released a free track for download, made pre-orders available through their own website, and recently posted a video to YouTube. Even the timing, releasing book and album at once so that Byrne is able to promote them together, must be deliberate.

Byrne and Clark passed work back and forth over email, so it's difficult parsing exactly what Byrne wrote and didn't, but old themes of his reemerge. He's ever the scientist, examining humans as glorified apes who watch TV and fall in love. Like in his book, and in much of his recent work, he's mostly hopeful—bemused at what he sees, but not troubled. On "Dinner for Two," for example, he returns to the subject of "life during wartime," but whereas the classic Talking Heads tune tackled Weather Underground style bandits on the run, here the scene's a posh, upper class dinner party, with the narrator captured or trapped with a love interest in a slinky dress. Throughout the song, tension builds, only to reveal he wants to ask her out on a date. Funny, yes. But in a cute, forgettable way.

Elsewhere, on "The One Who Broke Your Heart," the excellent line "No one else can compare to the way you love yourself" disappears in a sprawl of relationship metaphors. The song "Lightning," by contrast, cuts deep, sonically with an undertow of ominous keyboards and distorted guitar, and lyrically with descriptions of a girl—possibly crazy, possibly sane, it's hard to tell—watching strange lightning strikes or missile fire from cover of her bed. Unsettling and catchy, it's a glimpse of Byrne at his best, but an outlier.

While the album's horn arrangements and percussive grooves hit hard, the timidity of the lyrics on Love This Giant are especially disappointing given the quality of Byrne's previous record, his collaboration with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. There, he penned a beautiful anthem to fatherhood on "Life Is Long," singing "Soul to soul, between you and me / Chain me down, but I am still free." Throughout the album, he glanced, in ways that his work rarely has before, at age, death, memory and tragedy, as well as love.

Those were subjects appropriate for a 60-year-old rock star, and I wish he'd tackle them again. Doing so would require Byrne to take off his kooky anthropologist hat, to stop channeling other voices and get back in touch with his own—to say something.

The bemused, avuncular, wise-artist role he's perfected of late is as much an act as his younger, awkward, nervous self. More so, even, as he's obviously hyper-aware of and sophisticated in thinking about how he presents himself to the world. In How Music Works and Love This Giant, David Byrne lets us inside his head. When will he trust himself enough to open his heart?