America is so terrible now that even David Byrne is bummed. At least, that’s what I hear when I listen to his new album, American Utopia, his first solo record since 2004, is which about and for those who are not living the proverbial American Dream. Throughout, I can’t tell if he’s serving a dash of optimism with his weariness, or a heaping scoop of weariness with his optimism. Either way, the effect is strangely leveling. Musically serene, rhythmically upbeat, and both thematically hopeful and sad, it’s a lot of what we’ve come to expect from David Byrne. He’s the Ultimate Observer, with his finger on the pulse of his surroundings.
I don’t think anyone does Big Picture like Byrne does. The characters in these ten new stories prompt me to consider the pertinence of Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs, which outlines how, in order for a person to survive, primal requirements like food and shelter must be prioritized over religion, art, philosophy, and anything else that could be considered supplementary to self-actualization. To have basic necessities met in today’s America is to be comforted. To have enough is to live in a utopia.
The album’s opener, “I Dance Like This,” gets an exciting treatment that reminds me a bit of Bowie’s final record, Blackstar. Lyrically, it kicks off the basic-needs theme with zingers like, “The truth don’t mean nothing if you ain’t got the cash.” “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” is probably the catchiest on the record (I’m a sucker for a mid-tempo shuffle) and is written from the perspective of someone unnamed and without stability, possibly a refugee or an immigrant. “She says the freedom costs too much / She says the mind is not a place.” The character in question is asserting that she can’t possibly be preoccupied with anything of a solipsistic nature if she doesn’t even have a home; intellectual concerns are luxuries to her. It is too expensive just to exist. Byrne has always written about the mundane and finds a way to build pop songs out of it, but it feels this is first time where the mundane, the bare necessities, the boring stuff, all have a dire sense attached to them. “The money-back guarantee don’t make my day / And no feeling of security” paints a bleak image of what it means to be disenfranchised in a country whose leaders boast sinister diatribes like “America First!”
“Every Day Is A Miracle” is nothing revelatory musically, but Byrne emphatically stays the thematic course. “Cockroach might eat Mona Lisa / The pope don’t mean shit to a dog.” Again we’re made to laugh at the irrelevance of art and religion in the lives of animals. Track four, “Dog’s Mind,” could be an extended outro to “Every Day Is a Miracle.” Byrne’s usually got his tongue in his cheek, but this time, I feel a tenderness not quite accessed in his previous recordings. “Now a dog cannot imagine what it is to drive a car / And we in turn are limited by what it is we are,” implies we might be altogether happier beings if we didn’t desire more than what is necessary to stay alive. The dog here is happy to eat, sleep, shit, and play. And we, the people, are sitting inside while “every window holds a staring face,” because we long for the happiness that the dog has found.
“This Is That” is a dissonant hymn. It’s full of feeling, and probably my favorite song on the album. Its themes are less clear to me than some of the other songs’, but money is referenced again with the repeated, “That’s when I use my cash card,” implicating some kind of risk or commitment, like draining the bank account. “It’s Not Dark Up Here” recalls some of my favorite Talking Heads moments, namely with the whistling, the African grooves, and the manic delivery turning the mundane into the grandiose. Byrne proclaims, “There’s nothing funny about making money / It wouldn’t work if it was,” before comparing earning a living to other everyday topical heavyweights, like dying and falling in love.
“Bullet” has more gravitas than the rest of the songs. Delivering simultaneously sobering and nauseating lines like, “His skin did part in two / Skin that women had touched,” I can’t imagine Byrne is singing about anything other than Trayvon Martin, or Philando Castile, or Alton Sterling, or Tamir Rice, or Michael Brown, or Sandra Bland, or Eric Garner (I could keep going)—innocent Americans all murdered swiftly and ruthlessly by terrorist American police. “The bullet went into him / His stomach filled with food.” You know: life in the American Utopia.
I scanned one review which called the album a “surreal joy,” and another which definitively labeled it a dystopia. It’s really both: a surreal dystopia that aches for joy—and envisions that joy plainly enough to spell out what it could look like. In a way, American Utopia is Byrne’s most grounded and empathetic release. He comes across as less alien here than on any of his previous offerings, which is a nice surprise. Musically, I feel like I’ve heard him do it all before; lyrically, it’s rich enough that I don’t mind. The album’s heart beats tenderly, and ultimately, I remain impressed in David Byrne’s ability to convince me of what he sees.