When TED Talks and travel guides advise the virtues of “seeing with new eyes,” they’re reducing a bigger and stranger idea from Marcel Proust. Every artist is “the native of an unknown country, which he himself has forgotten,” he wrote in Remembrance of Things Past. “The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.”
This full, knotty idea—the imperative to both see everything anew and to see also how others see—lives on, at least, in David Byrne. Whether as Talking Heads bandleader or solo singer, visual artist or author, Byrne not only renders the familiar as bizarre, but also makes work about the familiar becoming bizarre, especially in the fantasyland of America. You may wake up and not recognize your beautiful wife and your beautiful home. You may feel “strange but not a stranger.” You may access the ancient thrill of a singalong, but as refracted through tricky rhythms and unfathomable sounds.
Byrne’s American Utopia, his first solo album in 14 years, celebrates the spirit of rediscovery with an inviting sonic sheen and semi-political purpose. “These songs don’t describe an imaginary or possibly impossible place, but rather attempt to depict the world we live in now,” the 65-year-old Byrne wrote when announcing the album. “Many of us, I suspect, are not satisfied with that world—the world we have made for ourselves. We look around and we ask ourselves—well, does it have to be like this?” The album title, he says, is not ironic, and the songs do carry a sweetness and sincerity—as well as requisite strangeness. They might make you jump around your kitchen; they might leave you humming to the words “the mind is a soft boiled potato / a jewel in a chocolate shell.”