Although you might not know it from the mixed reviews the album received, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s 2010 song cycle Here Lies Love was a magnificent achievement. The 22-track story of the controversial former Filipina dictator Imelda Marcos as sung by a disparate cast of alt-rock notables including Florence Welch, Tori Amos, Steve Earle, Shara Worden, and more, to a disco beat was by turns catchy, clever, and insightful. The lyrics never apologize for Imelda and her cruel ways, but they do humanize the beast she was (and maybe she still is). Imelda currently serves in the country’s House of Representatives.
Byrne said he always intended this as a work of musical theatre to be installed in a nightclub. That seemed a bad idea compared with the all-star production. Songs would need to be cut—and indeed some of the best ones (i.e., Nellie McKay’s sweetly sung “How Are You?”, Sharon Jones’ sultry “Dancing Together”, Sia’s bouncy “Never So Big”) never made it to the theatrical enterprise sung by the company of actors. Besides eliminating some tracks, seven new ones were added. The project seemed doomed.
However, the original cast recording of Here Lies Love, which played at New York’s Public Theater, is even better than the previous effort. From the deep funky dance rhythms of the opening number that casts a cold eye on the United States, “American Troglodyte” to the lilting curtain call reprise of “Here Lies Love”, the double album takes one to a wondrous world that details everything from Imelda’s impoverished and ambitious youth to her love of beauty and power to a steely selfishness and purposeful ignorance that betrays every positive impulse she seems to have expressed. Byrne assembles the words of Filipina leader and others from the period with his own imaginative ones to create something deeply suggestive and revealing. Imelda comes alive through Ruthie Ann Mile’s sumptuous singing. Jose Llano’s Ferdinand, Conrad Ricamora’s Ninoy Aquino, Melody Butiu’s Estrella Cumpas, and the rest of the company all offer extraordinary vocal accompaniment.
Meanwhile, Fatboy Slim’s musical contributions palpitate and pound, squeak and fizz, charm and enamor, and transcend the disco setting even as it utilizes all the dance hall tricks. One could not sit down while watching the show. The music would lure you off of your seat. Just imagine dancing to songs about a whirlwind courtship “Eleven Days”, the length of Imelda and Ferdinand’s courtship one minute and later to “Proposition 1081”, about the bombing of a political rally and the subsequent imposition of martial law. Just like love and the ability to control others, the music is exceedingly seductive.
This is more than living history for one’s eyes and ears as it would be on stage. The cast recording transcends its inherent limitations (as compared with actually witnessing the show). The production makes you shake your head as well as your booty as ever single word is articulated with clarity, cadence, and a purpose. The strongly written lyrics are more than just smart, they have an essential musicality. They spring off the dance rhythms like a red rubber ball on a hardwood floor.
Imelda’s rise and fall was not a straightforward morality tale. The truth is complex, and while there is little doubt that her excesses far outweigh her positive influence on Philippine life, it’s not a black and white scenario. Her upbringing and desires, struggles and dreams, the totality of her existence exposes the monstrous capabilities we all have as human beings. An examination of Imelda’s political life forces us to analyze our own personal temperament. Who are we to claim we would act better or differently than a woman who once declared she did not want her name written on a tombstone, just the words “Here Lies Love”?