Anyone rooting for David Byrne to finally fall into self-parody were sensing irony-drenched blood in the water after 1997’s Feelings. His practice of mocking the things most people admitted they felt was usually saved by his skill in doing so, but as his touch began to slip, he started looking more and more like an aging crank whose message detailed little beyond his stunted emotional growth. In the few years of silence that followed Feelings, it seemed as if Byrne might finally have retired from making music and settled instead for running Luaka Bop and hosting Sessions at West 54th. Then, a strange thing happened in 2001: he made a mini-comeback with Look into the Eyeball. It may not have set the charts on fire or made any new converts, but its shift from irony-and-worldbeat to a strings-heavy approach that made Byrne sound sincere if not romantic signaled that it was too soon to write the former critical darling off just yet.
Never content to rest on his laurels, Byrne took the push that Eyeball gave him to put out a soundtrack and assemble an odd mixed-media piece called EEEI - Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information that used PowerPoint to comment on emotional epistemological information, whatever the hell that is. And now comes Grown Backwards on Nonesuch, hero record company of Wilco lore, home to the Kronos Quartet, and instigators of Randy Newman’s Songbook series, greatest hits collections with the chutzpah to revise a classic body of work. In short, Nonesuch is a boutique label for artists too brilliant to deserve the harsh life in the regular music business. Does Byrne belong in such vaunted company? That’s anyone’s guess, but Grown Backwards, so named for Byrne’s inverted approach of writing these songs melody first rather than texture first, never makes Byrne sound out of place there and builds on the gains of his last work to boot.
Even more string-laden than Eyeball, Grown Backwards only features the twisted pop of Talking Heads or the “world music” (Byrne rightfully hates the term) of previous solo work in nearly weightless doses. Rather, it sounds like a collection of art songs where even the two opera arias sound at home, if not especially inspired. Of course, Byrne is not going to be mistaken for Schumann with this—the polyrhythms of percussionist Mauro Refosco and Byrne’s lyrics and voice give it away—but he still makes something worthwhile out of the form even without making it his own. It sounds like a David Byrne album for anyone whose definition of the term includes all of his wandering output rather than just Talking Heads and solo works in the same vein.
Since that output is so diverse (sometimes painfully so), saying that an album fits in is not necessarily a complement. Indeed, Grown Backwards is not without its flaws, from songs that sound more like a soundtrack than something that deserves full attention to lyrics that seem like holdovers from a persona Byrne has been well-served in at least partially shedding. His biggest problem has always been his addiction to a free-floating irony that is really just cheap sarcasm with an artsy pose. That stinks up its corners of Grown Backwards like it did to Look into the Eyeball, but only a couple of songs suffer heavily for it, namely “Dialog Box” and “Civilization”, both of which at least prepared the listener for his or her immanent groan with their titles.
Still, there is ample cause for optimism elsewhere that Byrne will continue growing up. Remember that for all his worldly travels, he’s still a hardcore New Yorker, and if September 11th didn’t actually kill irony like a few pundits stupidly quipped, it sounds as if it sapped some of its attraction for Byrne. Grown Backwards is not a record about 9/11, he insists, but it was affected by a local catastrophe and two wars he didn’t believe in. “Empire” may or may not be about these things depending on your reading of Byrne’s ever-cryptic words, but the impact of recent events on Byrne comes across better simply with the tone of the album, which is elegiac, stately, even tender. Who would’ve ever expected those adjectives to apply to the man who wrote “Psycho Killer”?
For fans who don’t want those adjectives to apply and whose dearest wish is to have Byrne write “Psycho Killer” parts two-through-infinity, Grown Backwards will inevitably disappoint, but the closest they will come to being satisfied is during the bonus track, “Lazy”. Bonus tracks on new albums is a worrying trend, one designed to take advantage of the lowered expectations that come with their second-class status on CDs, but “Lazy” makes a good case for bonus track marriage to the album rather than the civil unions they’re usually stuck with. A ten-minute epic combining electronica with a more pronounced world (sorry, “world”) influence and a dramatic composition, “Lazy” is anything but. Its electronica may not be cutting edge and it’s not quite a masterpiece, but its shot of energy is more than welcome after an album whose main weakness is a shortage of it. Grown Backwards’ restraint risks landing it in a coffeehouse ghetto that only asks for its music to be ignorable, but just because something can be ignored doesn’t mean that it should, as the solid handful of excellent moments here proves.