Nearly every review of Here Lies Love is destined to begin the same way: with a rote description of its concept. And why not? The concept of the album lies so far afield of the expected as to embody the rare case of that concept driving a listener’s perception of the album at least as much as the music contained within. In this case, David Byrne and Norman Cook got together and whipped up a concept album about former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos, in the process calling up every female vocalist (and Steve Earle) that they had a number for.
If nothing else, it sounds interesting. You have to give it that.
In fact, Here Lies Love sounds like such an interesting concept that it’s easy to be disappointed with it on first listen. For the most part, the double album is a light, airy thing, with light, airy singers plopped onto light, airy music with disco sensibilities and modern club beats. There are lots of strings, as if to underscore the drama, but also enough buzzy noises and 120-130 BPM tempos to make one remember when Fatboy Slim was not only relevant, but wildly popular as well. It’s an album that could easily be put on in the background, whether as the backdrop for a classy party or simply for cooking dinner. It is so passively ear-pleasing that you actually have to make an effort to notice it.
Make the effort, though, and you will be rewarded. Byrne has done us the favor of providing detailed liner notes (or a 100-page book if you’re feeling extravagant), most of which are reprinted here, so very little decoding has to be done of the lyrics. What this allows us to do is concentrate on the delivery of those lyrics, and Byrne has coaxed expert performances out of nearly all of his collaborators. Florence and the Machine gives an appropriately Broadway-esque, majestic performance in the opening number, Cyndi Lauper brings out the sassy side of Ms. Marcos as she details the Marcos’ romance in “Seven Days”, and Santigold is the perfect voice to express the desperate attempts of both Imelda and Ferdinand at staying relevant in world politics. Despite a casual listen forcing voices to run together, a close listen reveals just how perfect so many of these similarly-voiced singers are for the parts they are playing at any given time.
Somehow, through all of this, Byrne manages to turn the saga of Ms. Marcos into a human tragedy, with a pair of tragic figures: Marcos herself, and Estrella Campos, the family housekeeper. Early in the song cycle, Imelda’s mother (played with appropriate tenderness and breathiness by Tori Amos) promises the beloved Estrella that if and when her children find success, she will share in it. It is her thank you to Estrella for being such a figure in her children’s lives. Imelda is the one who achieves that success, of course, and Imelda forgets Estrella. Rather than painting Imelda as a monster, however, Byrne visualizes her as a sympathetic figure, one who loses herself in the duties of the first lady, and then regains a hardened version of herself at the revelation of her husband’s infidelity. One supposes that if her well-being and psyche weren’t so tied to her relationship with Ferdinand, she would have remembered Estrella more fondly; as it is, Estrella exists only as a painful reminder of a past she’d rather not remember, one in which “sometimes, [she] had no shoes”.
It should be noted that a couple of voices do rise above the rest, particularly those whose portrayals depict the inner thoughts of Ms. Marcos. Sharon Jones sounds like a veteran amongst rookies as she gives voice to the one place where Marcos felt most comfortable — on the dancefloor, where she let her cares drop to the floor as she ostensibly provided a vicarious outlet for the longings of her people. Kate Pierson sounds as though she hasn’t aged a day since “Rock Lobster” as she spends a song on Marcos’ theories of the cosmos. Shara Worden’s tentative performance on penultimate track “Seven Years” expresses some hesitation and regret (if not a change of heart) at the ordered assassination of Benigno Aquino. Unstable and dangerous as she may be, however, Marcos never stops being a sympathetic figure in this story, and that’s a credit to each and every one of these voices.
There is but one voice who sounds out of place in this story, and that is Byrne himself.
Byrne gives an impassioned, world-weary performance as Aquino in the aforementioned “Seven Years”, but he gets one earlier song all to himself: “American Troglodyte”. Sung by nobody in particular, it is a criticism of American excess, which by itself would only be tangentially related to Marcos’s story. Still, when Byrne eventually starts listing examples of that excess and includes “Americans are watching reality”, “Americans are surfing that Internet”, and “Americans are listening to 50 Cent”, it also removes the song from the time period of a narrative that never explicitly goes past 1983. It’s a fine song in and of itself, but I wish more insight was offered as to how Byrne felt he could get away with the excesses of 2010 in a tale that ends in the ’80s.
Temporal displacement aside, Here Lies Love is an impressive work that certainly shows the marks of five years’ worth of refinement. Fatboy Slim expands his own palette like never before, Byrne turns Imelda Marcos into a sympathetic figure rather than a luxury-addicted iron fist, and each vocalist seems to relish the opportunity to play a part. That the result is largely “light” listening works against it to a degree, but the idea that such a sound was entirely Byrne’s intent forgives even this. It’s not often that a purely musical work can make us see a historical figure in a new light, but Here Lies Love is a fascinating exception.