Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Almost Normal

David Byrne and Brian Eno – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Download Only from http://www.everythingthathappens.com 2008)

A new collaboration between David Byrne and Brian Eno, the first since the groundbreaking ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ in 1981, ought to be a significant event in the 2008 musical calendar. Perhaps following the Radiohead model, or maybe playing their own version of the modern music marketing game, Byrne and Eno have released this new album via their own website, a matter of a couple of weeks after announcing its completion. The publicity machine is now trying to catch up. I still see this as a massively positive development in the industry – so many bands languish in artistic frustration and boredom when compelled to fall in line with ‘record company schedules’, and then end up touring an album some three years after they actually completed the material. The only problem is that it’s only established, internationally renowned artists who have the financial and creative freedom to do this – the conventional music industry is hardly going to disappear tomorrow.

Those expecting something subversive and challenging in the manner of ‘…Bush of Ghosts’ will come away from this album disappointed. In its least effective moments, it actually sounds dated where ‘…Ghosts’ still sounds remarkably radical. It’s very much a song-based album, whereby Eno sent musical sketches to Byrne, who penned lyrics and melodies and developed them into songs. Eno’s music is decidedly conservative, in spite of the use of electronics. There is no unusual harmony and no alien, unfamiliar sounds. Beneath the burbling, gurgling and occasionally clunky drum programming, there’s actually rather a lot of very conventional guitar playing. One begins to appreciate how comfortable Eno must have been working with the likes of Coldplay, U2 and James.

This doesn’t mean that it’s a record bereft of value or virtue though. Songcraft remains an artform as much as it is a format, and sometimes the combination of Eno’s comforting sounds and Byrne’s lyrical and melodic sensibility does indeed produce something artful. Eno has spoken articulately about the influence of gospel music on this material, not so much as a means of praise and devotion, but as a ‘music of surrender’. On the quietly moving title track and the stirring ‘The River’, it’s easy to hear this appealing theory whirring into action. Eno’s textures, if no longer original, are at least characteristically mesmerising. Even better, the concluding ‘The Lighthouse’, easily the most mysterious and enchanting track of this set, is compelling without ever loudly voicing its intent. Byrne’s intriguing words add a sense of awe and wonder to Eno’s shimmering sounds. It’s a song in which one can slowly, almost imperceptibly drown.

Sometimes it seems as if the gospel foundation leads the pair into rather uncomfortable cliché. Another hymnal song called ‘One Fine Day’ hardly adds anything new to the popular music canon (Elbow have traversed very similar ground already this year with their terrace anthem ‘One Day Like This’). ‘Home’ and ‘My Big Nurse’ begin the album on a strangely underwhelming manner, both tracks sounding safe and secure, but lacking any real sense of adventure. Perhaps that’s necessary, at least in the first example, to underline the themes, but it’s unusual to hear Byrne sounding so unengaging.
The tracks with the most immediate impact are those where Byrne’s recurring preoccupations cut through. It’s easy to see why the lithe funk of ‘Strange Overtones’ was selected as a taster – it’s infectious and immediate without being saccharine. More inventive is the outstanding ‘Poor Boy’ which, with its series of chants, is the only moment here where Byrne’s interest in music from around the globe really becomes transparent. For all the talk of gospel, Eno’s preoccupations seem resolutely stuck within a western pop tradition for much of this set. Even the weird and wonderful ‘I Feel My Stuff’, a little more unpredictable and adventurous, is closer to Radiohead or the REM of ‘Up’ than anything Byrne might release through Luaka Bop.

Perhaps this method of detached collaboration, which worked so fruitfully for Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard as The Postal Service (with all due respect, two lesser creative talents), has not worked quite so consistently for Byrne and Eno. ‘Everything That Happens…’ is intermittently fascinating, but never quite as imaginative as expectation might dictate. Those who have already heaped knee-jerk praise on it are arguably indulging Eno’s middle-aged comfort zone. He’s not really pushing himself compositionally here – there’s not much experimentation with either form or content.

Byrne, by way of contrast, is continuing to push himself vocally, stretching his range, tone and quality of sound. He is getting the most out of that quirky vulnerability that people either love or loathe and really using his voice as an instrument. He elevates every track here, sometimes to the extent that Eno’s wispy blandness is superseded by something much more arresting. On this evidence his next solo step, freed from these constrictions, ought to be worth some investment.

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