David Byrne Is Back With a Surreal Wakeup Call

American Utopia from the Talking Heads mastermind tunefully renders the familiar as strange and new.

Drew Gurian / AP

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.”

The album is yet another in a lifetime of collaborations between Byrne and Brian Eno, but according to The New York Times, a young label exec pushed him to redo the initial batch of tracks with novel collaborators. Eno’s inventive touch still remains, paired with a pop slickness and the hallmarks of other forward-thinking creators (though no women, to Byrne’s public shame and regret). Byrne brings in slithering sounds from the experimental master Oneohtrix Point Never and glitchy rhythms from the British beatmaker Happa. He also brings in lush strings and sax, some from the jazz group Onyx Collective. Most important, though, is Byrne himself: his effortless but bustling melodies, his sturdily defined verses and choruses, his transcendent bridges, his humanely wavering howl.

The familiar/freaky duality is evident right from the start in “I Dance Like This,” which travels between wistful piano recitals and dark tunnels of industrial thrum. Listening feels like flipping frequencies on the radio, or slipping through different dimensions—which, incidentally, is the notion Byrne conjures in the very first line of lyrics. The metaphysical musical trip probably is meant to capture the unity of a human experience, the way moments of “tentatively shaking” can give away to unapologetic release: “It feels so damn good.”

A sitar bwangs and we’re in yet another dimension: that of “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets,” a groovy sendup of modern conveniences, with an uneasy interlude that could be called harmonica house. “They say the answer’s one click away,” Byrne sings, decontextualizing online ad copy in the same way he did televangelist slogans way back on “Once in a Lifetime.” The scrapbooking approach returns later on the tense orchestral reverie of “Doing the Right Thing,” a confession of scrupulously following the cosmopolitan playbook and still feeling lost. “I’m deep into the local cuisine,” Byrne almost scats.

At the center of the album is a duo of songs using Kingdom Animalia to break out of human subjectivity. The calypso-touched bop “Every Day Is a Miracle” spins out wild verses involving divine roosters and donkey genitalia, but continually returns to a sunshine-y chorus of inspirational bon mots: “You’ve gotta sing for your supper / Love one another.” It’s followed by “Dog’s Mind,” which moves from a fable about a president who distorts reality to a meditation on how, from a canine perspective, none of it matters. Sounding like an extraterrestrial Broadway solo ballad, the song’s both a call to keep things in perspective and to keep an eye out for new perspectives: “A dog cannot imagine what it is to drive a car / And we, in turn, are limited by what it is we are.”

The fastest way to arrive at a new vantage, Byrne knows, is through music itself. Across the album, he’s paid special care to craft late-song epiphanies, when arrangements and lyrics become crystalline and hopeful, making the listener feel suddenly godlike. He sings about this very effect at one point, too. The muffled thump of “This Is That” pays tribute to “when the melody ends and the rhythm kicks in.” Such moments are “when my river overflows  … when I use my cash card … when I think of who you are.” Joy and riches and love, accessed by the dislocation of art: It’s utopia, at least for a bit.