Oh how far we’ve come, David Byrne. Byrne left an indelible mark on pop music with his first outfit (oversized), Talking Heads. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Byrne’s music was intelligent, witty, funny, and challenging pop. The method evolved from the lo-fi approach of the early Talking Heads albums like Talking Heads 77 and Fear of Music, to the more expansive and complex world rhythms of later albums like Little Creatures and Naked (this characterization, of course, leaves out their 1980 masterpiece, Remain in Light, produced by Brian Eno).
Unfortunately, the mediocrity found in later Talking Heads albums continued into Byrne’s solo career. His penchant for Latin beats and instruments on albums like Uh Oh seemed forced and uninspired, coming off like a bad PC move, as if he were saying, “Hey, there is more music out there than just western rock!” Alas, his western rock was far better than any of his samba dance pieces would ever be.
In the 1990s, however, we witnessed a David Byrne renaissance. Beginning with 1994’s Davidbyrne and continuing through 1997’s Feelings, Byrne emerged from the world music mire with a new version of the witty pop that was more akin to the music of his early days. What makes the new Byrne music so interesting is the way he synthesizes so many different styles. Look into the Eyeball boasts delicate ballads and funky dance songs peppered with electronic beats and grooves, crisp beautiful strings, snippets of soul, funk and dance, and the signature clean electric guitar characteristic of early Talking Heads.
The difference between his latest outing and his solo albums of the 1990s is the emotional directness and honesty achieved. The cover of Feelings showed Byrne as a plasticized model (ala Ken and Barbie). The album, like much of the early Talking Heads material, was ironic and distant. Look into the Eyeball‘s cover, on the other hand, shows Byrne’s face in much the same angle as Feelings, except that he is decisively human-his hair is graying, his skin is wrinkled, and his face has the solemn calm of wisdom. On his website, Byrne explains his reasons for naming the album Look into the Eyeball: “[It] reflects to me both the record’s preoccupation with human relations, and it’s slightly off-kilter view of the same.”
Indeed, the emotional feel of this album is one of innocence and wonder. Byrne’s voice conveys that of the wide-eyed child, viewing the world free from preconceptions or prejudices. “Like Humans Do” finds Byrne ironically identifying the basics of human existence: “I’m breathing in, I’m breathing out . . . like humans do”. This deceptively simple view of humanity is evidenced most clearly in “Neighborhood”, a cool, relaxed, funky track reminiscent of 1970s Philly soul. The scene is idyllic as the smooth strings cascade over the grooving drumbeat and Byrne sings, “Funky beats, Barrow Street, walking with your dog, I see you, you see me, then we stop and talk”.
These characteristics of the album come together in “Walk on Water”, a remarkable musical and lyrical achievement for Byrne. The song is sweet, funny, cute, and it decisively reveals Byrne’s new state of mind. “Walk on Water” tells the tale of a bloated rock star who, unlike Byrne, has failed to avoid the solipsistic traps of the music industry. “He can walk on the water”, sings Byrne over a simple Rhodes piano riff, “but he can’t stop falling in.” The song is a celebration of Byrne’s individuality and idiosyncrasy, which he has tirelessly guarded and nurtured over the past 20 years. “He’s got amplifiers, microphones, record players, god only knows,” sings Byrne, only to add, “all the girls say, ‘shut up and gimme the groove’”.
The rock star is a pathetic Jesus figure, expected and ordered to perform miracles on a regular basis, regardless of his or her desires or sanity. In this song as well as in his career, Byrne shirks such artistic paralysis, urging his dying rock star as the song explodes in a funky incantation, “Get up, get up, get up, you men and women, walk on, walk on, walk on, like fishes swimmin’, let go, let go, let go, you know that you can.”
Byrne’s ability to avoid such egotism is a direct result of his child-like perspective; instead of seeing the bullshit of stardom, he can see it for what it really is. The song reaches perfection for me as Byrne implores his character to awaken singing, “Wake up, wake up, wake up, you sleeping babies, hello, hello, hello, you naked ladies”-while urging this deadened rock star to prioritize his life, in a deadpan voice of innocence Byrne chimes, “Hello, hello, hello to the naked ladies coddling the star”. They don’t faze him, they aren’t erotic, they aren’t signs of decadence-they are simply naked people and he says hello.
As Byrne writes on his website, “I somehow imagine that a real revolution is won by seduction, by winning over not just the mind, but the body and the senses as well. And that the sadness of some of these melodies are countered by the vigor and persistence of the groove.” The grooves, the alternating dissonance and harmony of the powerfully rich strings, the graceful melodies, seem like incantations for us to rise up and celebrate the power of music along with Byrne.
Look into the Eyeball has certainly inspired me to appreciate Byrne’s beautiful, innocent and even admirable vision of a humane world, free from posturing and posing. This album helps me to appreciate, as he hoped, the “persistence of the groove”.
(Check out Byrne’s revealing essay on the making of Look into the Eyeball at http://www.davidbyrne.com/cmp/info.html)