When David Byrne and Brian Eno renewed their partnership recently after more than two decades apart, nothing was taken for granted.
Eno (the famed producer of U2 and founding member of Roxy Music) had some unfinished music, and Byrne (the driving force in Talking Heads) suggested that he might try to write some lyrics. It was a simple collaboration between two old friends, but with a heck of a back story: In 1978-80, three Eno-produced Talking Heads albums capped by “Remain in Light” changed rock history. In 1981, an Eno-Byrne album, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” presaged the collage-style sampling of hip-hop and various strands of electronic music. That’s a lot to live up to.
“After all these years, our relationship comes with a little baggage,” Byrne understates. “We can’t just do ‘Life in the Bush of Ghosts II.’”
After listening to the Eno tracks “for a long time - a little too long, actually,” Byrne hit on the idea of doing an “electronic folk gospel” album that would become “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” self-released by the artists a few weeks ago on the everythingthathappens.com Web site. It would be a different album than Byrne and Eno had ever made, with an emphasis on major-key melodies that suggest the transcendence of gospel music, even as Eno’s musical soundscapes convey something more sinister.
“I’ve had a lot of practice writing melodies over the years and that’s evolved into something much different than what I would have done with the same chords a number of years ago,” Byrne says. “I now know how to make a longer melodic arch that builds slowly and takes you somewhere. I find these songs much more emotional to sing than some of the older stuff (Eno and Byrne did 30 years ago).”
The sound of Byrne’s voice - fuller, more confiding and warmer than ever - is the key to the album. It soars out of Eno’s turbulent arrangements with a power that belies the adenoidal yelp of his Talking Heads days.
“I actually enjoy the physical act of singing, moving the air through your lungs,” he says. “I didn’t feel that kind of sensual pleasure in singing in the past. Also, I’ve listened to singers like (Brazilian great) Caetano Veloso over the years, and it raises the bar. It made me realize what you can shoot for as a singer.”
Eno and Byrne emailed music back and forth. When Eno heard the vocals and lyrics, “he was an incredible cheerleader,” Byrne says. “Later, we’d be fine-tuning it, and he’d say, ‘I don’t think this verse is so good’ or ‘Maybe we should cut this part.’ But at the moment when you need support and encouragement, he pours it out. When you are in that fragile time, when you’re not sure if it’s any good or not, he’ll push you to keep going. ... It’s part of why Brian’s such a successful producer.”
The album pivots on a key line from the song “Life is Long”: “I’m lost but I’m not afraid.”
“That is the overall vibe of the record,” Byrne agrees. “(It says), ‘We’re going to get through this. Humanity will prevail.’”
Byrne says the tone runs counter to what his intellect tells him is a tragic time for America and the rest of the world.
“Where is that (optimism) coming from?” he says. “After the last decade I should be totally angry, ticked off. It surprised me. I guess that’s what music is for. It brings stuff out of you that you need to have brought out.”
Byrne and Eno released the music online without support from a record label, following in the footsteps of Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails.
In contrast to the gaudy sales figures posted by those artists, “things build a little more gradually” for the Byrne-Eno album, Byrne says. “We sold enough on our Web site in the first month to pay all our expenses (for making the album) ... but for other musicians that wouldn’t be enough to live on.”
Byrne sees other advantages to self-releasing his music. He was able to book a tour for this fall soon after finishing the album, and make the music immediately available. “If I’d recorded it for a record label, they would have said, ‘No way.’ They need four months to advance your record before it comes out. We didn’t have to ask anyone. We just did it. Sometimes I have to pinch myself because you forget all the unwritten rules that record companies have.”