Album Review of "American Utopia" by David Byrne
Stop Burning Down the House: How David Byrne starts making sense in "American Utopia"
Have you ever noticed how often David Byrne uses the word house in his songwriting? Host Bobby Waller takes an in-depth look at the former Talking Heads frontman's favorite word and how its use in Byrne's new album reflects a change of thinking from burning down to building up our metaphorical homes.
New Feature: Album News! Starting with this episode, we take a few minutes at the start of the show to let you know what critics are saying about new releases, what albums are topping the charts, and which artists will be releasing new albums.
Album Review Podcast - Show Notes
Learn more about David Byrne, listen to American Utopia, and read additional reviews.
Listen to American Utopia
Stop Burning Down the (Metaphorical) House
How David Byrne's new album, American Utopia, reflects a change of thinking from burning down the house to welcoming everyone into it.
This is a partial transcript of Ep. 22 of the What's This Album About? podcast published March 19, 2018
Top Selling Albums
The top albums on the Billboard 200 chart this week are both movie soundtracks:
Top Rated Albums
One of the things we do at What's This Album About? to help us decide which album we'll feature next is to look at Metacritic scores. Metacritic.com is a site that aggregates reviews for albums, video games, movies and so on. So what they do for any given album, they'll look at a whole bunch of different reviews and then they will assign a score that they consider to be the average score for that album, and that score is going to be somewhere between one and a hundred.
Top-rated albums released on March 9 and March 16.
- Cocoa Sugar by Young Fathers
This is the third albums for this alt-rock band from Edinburgh, Scotland. In addition to having the highest rating by critics on Metacritic, they also had the highest user rating in the past two weeks, with a score of 8.9 out of 10.
- Jericho Sirens by Hot Snakes
Hot Snakes are a hard-core influenced punk band from San Diego.
Note: The highest rated album of 2018 so far is Mary Gauthier's Rifles and Rosary Beads, a collection of songs about soldier's issues. It was released in January of this year and it has been garnering incredible response from the critics. It's got a Metacritic score of 94. Its top-selling track is The War After the War.
This Sacramento-based Irish punk band new album is a scorcher. This is the song "Battle," written by lead guitarist Mike Dalton about his experience with his brother who went away to Desert Storm and came back a different person.
That's right, a new album by a guy who's been dead for almost fifty years. It's a collection of his out-takes, stuff he never intended the public to hear.
ARTIST BIO: About David Byrne
Let's start with a quick artist bio. David Byrne is best known as the lead singer of the now-defunct new wave/art rock band, Talking Heads. This is his voice we're hearing right now in the band's earliest signature song, 1977's "Psycho Killer."
♪ Psycho Killer
Qu'est-ce que c'est
Run run run run run run run away oh oh
Talking Heads founding core consisted of Byrne along with fellow art students from the Rhode Island School of Design, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz. In 1974, the three formed a band called the Artistics and quickly realized they'd never get anywhere with a name like that. So they changed their name to Talking Heads and, in 1975, had their first public performance at none other than American punk’s most legendary formative venue, CBGBs, where they opened for none other than American punk’s most legendary formative band, the Ramones.
♪ Hey ho, let's go
In 1977, Talking Heads released their first single, and in true art school fashion, gave it a completely perplexing name: the word Love followed by an arrowing point at the words Building on Fire. Shortly thereafter, they released their first album, Talking Heads: 77, and took on a fourth core member, Jerry Harrison, who had been playing keyboards for Jonathan Richman’s band, the Modern Lovers.
Talking Heads 77 was followed by a string of critically acclaimed albums and the band’s first taste of mainstream attention when MTV put the video for “Once in a Lifetime” into heavy rotation.
Byrne, with his retro nerd image and his spastic mechanical dance moves quickly became a new wave icon, paving the way for the band’s attainment of legendary status, which came with the release of their best-selling 1983 album, Speaking in Tongues.
This is Speaking in Tongues’ highest selling single, “Burning Down the House.” Remember that name because it’s going to prove significant in a few minutes when we look at Byrne’s new album, American Utopia, directly.
Talking Heads disbanded in 1991, but not without leaving an indelible mark on rock history. They were inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, by Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Meanwhile, Byrne dedicated himself to an impressive solo career that included musical and theatrical collaborations with:
- Twyla Tharp
- Celia Cruz
- Fat Boy Slim
And this one,
♪ Something I should tell you
But we are never alone
This is “Dinner for Two” from the album Love This Giant, which Byrne created in collaboration with St. Vincent in 2012. In fact, Byrne has been so busy with collaborations, that it’s been nearly fourteen years since he released a true solo album. For that reason, American Utopia can be regarded as a long-awaited return to the solo spotlight by one of America’s most beloved musical legends.
So without ado, let’s do what we always do on this show. Let’s take a good, hard look at the lyrics of American Utopia as we ask ourselves “What’s This Album About?”
LYRICAL ANALYSIS: American Utopia
American Utopia is David Byrne’s tenth solo and/or collaboration album outside of Talking Heads. It was released on March 9, 2018 with this as its lead single.
♪ Now everybody's coming to my house
And I'm never going to be alone
This is “Everybody’s Coming to My House.” Remember, how a few minutes ago, I said that the title of Talking Heads best-selling single, “Burning Down the House” would come up again? That’s because, as I listened to American Utopia, I realized David Byrne has used the word “house,” and especially the phrase “my house,” quite a lot throughout his career. The word “house” appears more than thirty times on American Utopia alone. It’s mentioned in passing on Track 2, “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets,”
♪ They form a country in my house
…where he sings of immigrants “forming a country in my house,” and on Track 3, “Every Day Is A Miracle,”
♪ The cockroach in the cosmos of your house
…where he refers to a “cockroach in the cosmos of your house.,” and on Track 4 “Doing the Right Thing,”
♪ Let me drive you to my country house
The word "house" also features prominently on the repeated refrain of Track 6, “It’s Not Dark In Here,"
♪ Hey, it's cool in my house
…and most notably on Track 9, the lead single, “Everybody’s Coming to My House.”
♪ Now everybody's coming to my house
And I'm never going to be alone
Now everybody's coming to my house
And I'm never going to go back home
Clearly, this concept of “the house” is very important to Byrne. In fact, I think it’s a crucial key to understanding what American Utopia is about. But before we go there, let’s hear what Byrne himself says American Utopia is about.
In the album’s liner notes, Byrne points out that “the United States was founded as a Utopian experiment.” But now, he notes, “the experiment seems on the verge of complete and utter collapse” and many of us are looking around and asking ourselves, “Does it have to be like this? Is there another way?” According to Byrne, American Utopia is “about that looking and that asking” because the act of looking and asking are signs of an unwillingness “to succumb entirely to despair and cynicism.” So, for Byrne, American Utopia is about finding hope in a time of despair.
So what does any of this have to do with his frequent use of the word “house”? To begin answering that question, let’s consider what Byrne means by “looking” because when Byrne says "looking," he means it in a very particular way. Often when people ask us to look at what’s going on in the world today, what they’re really doing is asking us to agree with their point of view—their set of beliefs that influence and determine the very way they look at the world. But Byrne seems more interested in a purer type of perception—a type of looking that is untainted by presumptions, we see this in “Every Day is a Miracle” where he elicits the brain of a chicken.
♪ The chicken images a heaven full of roosters and plenty of corn
and Track 4, “Dog’s Mind,” where he sings…
♪ Now a dog cannot imagine what it is to drive a car
And we in turn are limited by what it is we are
I’m thinking of sociologist Peter Berger, who wrote in his groundbreaking book, The Sacred Canopy, that human beings are “curiously unfinished at birth.” A dog, according to Berger, is more or less finished at birth. It doesn’t have to figure out its world because its understanding of the dog world is pre-determined by its instincts. But human beings lack such instinctual completeness and are left with the daunting task of figuring out what the human world is and/or should be.
And here’s where the house metaphor comes in, because, for David Byrne, a house symbolizes the products of that figuring out process. A house is the structure we create in order to make our lives make sense. It's our comfort zone, if you will.
But is that a good thing or a bad thing? I suspect David Byrne in his younger years considered this sense-making enterprise mostly a bad thing. Take for example, one of Talking Heads’ best known lyrics.
♪ Stop making sense, stop making sense
Stop making sense, making sense
The song is 1983’s “Girlfriend Is Better,” and the now iconic line is “Stop making sense.” According to the younger David Byrne, the sense-making structures we impose on our human world are more harmful than good and should be stopped. Put differently, the houses we build are unsustainable…
♪ This is not my beautiful house
…and should be burned to the ground,
♪ Burning down the house
All that having been said, American Utopia suggests that the older and probably wiser David Byrne is more accepting of the fact that making sense is just what human beings do. Consider the second verse of “Everybody’s Coming to My House."
♪ I’m pointing and describing
And I can be your guide
The skin is just a roadmap
The view is very nice
Here Byrne is taking houseguests on a tour of his house. He’s “pointing and describing.” And he’s aware that what he’s doing may seem shallow. It’s just the skin. But he asserts that the skin is just a roadmap—a representation of something real, and a tool that will take us there. And, by the way, we should want to go there because the “view is very nice.” The verse ends like this:
♪ Imagine looking at a picture
Imagine driving in a car
Imagine rolling down the window
Imagine opening the door
Here he entices his listeners to expose themselves to the other worlds that are out there. First, look at a picture of someone else’s reality, then drive through it, then open the window of the car, then consider setting foot in it because, even though these realities we create for ourselves are only skin, they point to something deeper. For David Byrne, a musician who has spent his lifetime working with people from various professions from cultures all over the world, there is value in coming to understand and appreciate the structures that other people have built.
In the end, American Utopia is not a political album. It offers fairly little in terms of a prescription for making the United States the utopia it was originally designed to be, but Byrne occasionally does suggest that this coming together of different people might be our saving grace.
Listen to the first chorus of Track 1, “I Dance Like This.”
♪ I dance like this because it feels so damn good
If I could dance better, well, you know that I would
Just as a dog’s thoughts aren’t very sophisticated to a philosopher, but they’re pure, Byrne’s dancing isn’t as refined as it could be, but he does it anyway, because it feels so damned good. And now listen to the last chorus:
♪ We dance like this because it feels so damn good
If we could dance better, well, you know that we would
Notice how the “I” has become “we.” Byrne no longer dances alone. His simple, guileless dance is open and accessible to others. And that, in the final analysis, is the virtue of the American utopian experiment. We may not always do it right, but we do it best when we come together.
This message about the redeeming quality of shared human experiences is echoed one last time on American Utopia’s final song, “Here,” which begins as a list of almost scientific observations:
♪ Here is a region of abundant details
Here is a region that is seldom used
Again, no judgments, no presumptions. Just looking. Just trying to make sense of it all through pure, unbiased perception. Because the comfort in human existence does not come from our discriminations, it comes from our connections to other human beings.
♪ Like a whisper in the dark
Raise your eyes to the one who loves you
It is safe right where you are
Thanks for listening to What’s This Album About? and special thanks to our webmaster/co-producer Linda Easton for joining me in our first installment of Album News. We’d love to hear from you about whether or not you think Album News is a good addition to the show. Contact us through the contact page of our website, whatsthisalbumabout.com or through email at WhatsThisAlbumAbout@gmail.com.
Until next time, I’m Bobby Waller reminding you to look and ask questions—and to keep your ears open because the more you listen, the more you love.