[25 November 2008]
Sitting down to review Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, Brian Eno and David Byrne’s first collaboration since 1981’s ambient/electronic masterwork My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, one can’t help but feel a little intimidated. These are, after all, two of the most revolutionary geniuses working in music today. Even if one were to leave aside the absolutely groundbreaking work they have done in the past with Talking Heads, Roxy Music, and David Bowie, they would still rank near the top of intellectually stimulating artists. This past summer, Byrne put on an event in New York City called “Playing the Building,” described on his website as “a sound installation in which the infrastructure, the physical plant of the building, is converted into a giant musical instrument”. I recently saw Eno give a lecture about his theories regarding musical composition; it involved an overhead projector, graphs, multi-colored drawings of geometric figures, and lasted over an hour. The Jonas Brothers these are not.
Imagine, then, this reviewer’s surprise to find that Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is in fact a supremely relaxed and accessible effort. On Talking Heads’ “Heaven”, Byrne calls Heaven “a place where nothing ever happens”, and much of this record sounds like a dispatch from that sleepy realm. Track after track is built on big, open-chord acoustic guitar strumming or tinkly pianos, with the warm voice of Byrne singing about home, Angels, roses, “socks and shoes”, and how “everybody’s happy to be a babydaddy”. It lionizes simple pleasures and builds a Pantheon of the banal things that give us joy. It’s, dare I say, comforting.
The album is also suffused with a kind of hushed awe at the possibilities of life. Tracks like “My Big Nurse”, “One Fine Day”, and “Everything That Happens” marvel at the infinite alternate realities that spill out of every decision. On this writer’s end of life, that thought evokes a kind of stomach-churning nausea at the prospect of making the wrong choices, but for Eno and Byrne, already successful and past middle age (both men are around 60), it evokes more of a wistful wonder at what might have been, and surprise that they made it to where they did. Like someone who’s just made a run through a minefield and come out intact, they have an appreciation that things could have gone so differently, and that they’ve retained their fingers and toes through luck as much as anything else. It makes them quiet down and think for a second, and offer their sympathy to those of us who didn’t make it as far as they did.
To speak of Everything in this holistic way is somewhat deceptive, however. The album was in fact born as a kind of accident when Eno made an offhand remark over dinner that he had some tracks lying around he didn’t know what to do with, and Byrne offered to take a stab at writing lyrics. As such, the songs are not all of a piece. There’s the Radiohead-style avant-dance of “I Feel My Stuff” and The almost-pop-rock of “Strange Overtones”. “Wanted For Life” is the only song that features the yelping, scatting David Byrne that was so glorious captured on the live album and film Stop Making Sense. The deconstructed rock anthem “Poor Boy” has all the elements of a great pop rock song –- electronics, distorted vocals, keyboard calisthenics, syncopated guitars –- but spools them out sequentially instead of all together, keeping them as separate as the food on an OCD-sufferer’s dinner plate. It’s interesting, but somewhat frustrating for those looking for Eno to cut loose, “Baby’s on Fire”-style. “The River” does somewhat recall glam-era Eno in its repeating tones, and is one of the more fun tracks on the record for it.
Throughout the liner notes, Byrne and Eno both make much of the fact that Everything is their attempt at an electronic gospel album. At first this is somewhat puzzling. There is little in the music to give one this impression –- no organs, no wall of voices, barely any handclaps. To understand their contention, one must understand what gospel represents to these men: authenticity, joy, and hope. To that extent, Everything is as gospel as anything Mahalia Jackson ever recorded. All the proof you need is how buoyant and energized this album leaves you feeling. Hallelujah.