David Byrne – ‘American Utopia’ Review

All is not lost

In the opening weeks of 2018, David Byrne went on tour – not with his live show, but with a presentation. From New York to Milan, he conducted lectures under the banner Reasons To Be Cheerful. Those sessions were about spreading optimism: in a world where depressing news is never far away, Byrne spotlighted the positive things humans are doing, progressive initiatives in areas from technology to transport. Practical ideas that are improving the world. In these dispiriting times, the 65-year-old still believes in hope – and more importantly, he’s encouraging others to do the same.

‘American Utopia’ isn’t a sarcastic title for the former Talking Heads man’s first solo album in 14 years. It neither points and laughs at the present mess, nor claims to map the future. Instead, in its own abstract way, it confronts the big questions, everything from ‘How did we get into this mess?’ to ‘Can we start over?’. If that sounds about as fun as Peston On Sunday, it never wallows in those quandaries because, well, it’s a David Byrne album. Which is to say: it’s melodic, goofy and very quirky.

Take, for example, the lyrics from a verse on ‘Everyday Is A Miracle’ – a song that has a sunny chorus that sounds like UB40. “Cockroach might eat Mona Lisa / The Pope don’t mean shit to a dog / And elephants don’t read newspapers / the kiss of a chicken is hard”. Figure that out. It’s an album packed with Byrne’s trademark eccentricity, with the odd immediately accessible moment. The delightful alt-pop of ‘Everybody’s Coming To My House’, written with long-term collaborator Brian Eno and featuring Sampha, is the best of those.

For the Talking Heads traditionalists the most familiar thing here is ‘It’s Not Dark Up Here’. Elsewhere, ‘Doing The Right Thing’ has a tantalisingly banging outro and ‘This Is That’ is a beautiful, theatrical ballad. “The mind is a soft-boiled potato”, he sings at one point. Coming from anybody else that’d be ridiculous, but from Byrne, it not only sounds like a reasonable observation, but also kind of profound.