If there’s a lesson to be learned from the David Byrne-St. Vincent joint production Love This Giant, it’s that collaboration is the sincerest form of flattery. The patron saint du jour for this generation of art-minded indies, Byrne has been an in-demand special guest star, including a cameo with Arcade Fire and a charity compilation track with Dirty Projectors, the most obvious heirs to the head Talking Head’s legacy. Indeed, Byrne’s influence on today’s too-cool-for-school trendsetters is broad and deep, considering how his restless, open-minded eclecticism has shaped, directly and indirectly, everything from the current world music and Afropop boom to high-concept dance-punk. And of all the willing candidates to team up with, it makes sense that St. Vincent’s Annie Clark is the one to score the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a don’t-call-it-side-project effort with Byrne, considering she’s one artist who’s fluent in enough musical vernaculars for a tête-à-tête with a living legend.
But while the title Love This Giant — a reference to Walt Whitman — suggests a reverence for Byrne’s status as, well, a giant, the pairing works well because there’s a mutual admiration between the principals that gets ‘em both to step a little outside of their respective comfort zones to create a piece that stands on its own. Certainly, Byrne draws something more organic and instinctive out of Clark’s normally immaculate, carefully crafted aesthetic: Even though both share a warped perspective and a sharp-witted sense of humor, the process of collaborating infuses Byrne’s bright tones and sunnier disposition into Clark’s darker worldview. That’s not to say, though, that the junior partner just takes a backseat here, considering how Clark’s creative energy stirs up a vitality in Byrne’s work that gives it a greater sense of currency.
As both have put it in interviews, Love This Giant isn’t another David Byrne record or a new St. Vincent album, but a real two-way-street enterprise. That give-and-take spirit is something you notice right away from the opening track “Who”, which finds the sweet-spot middle ground between the warmth of Byrne’s world-music motifs and Clark’s cool gallery-pop approach. As Clark’s rhythm-based guitar play lays a strong foundation for “Who”, Byrne’s soulful touch gives it a natural, grounded feel that’s amplified by the deep timbre of the song’s bold horn arrangement. On “Weekend in the Dust”, the productive relationship between the two plays itself out in the way Clark’s trademark guitar shredding gets groovy thanks no doubt to Byrne’s influence, taking some of the edge off her sharp riffs to give them more bounce and body.
For sure, Love This Giant isn’t an abstract exercise by two artists who aren’t shy about pursuing the more experimental and intellectual side of pop music: What breathes life into the meticulous craftsmanship and the seamless blend of so many eclectic ingredients is their loose improvisational play, as Byrne and Clark riff off one another with gusto. The twosome may have constructed the album by sending computer files back and forth, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the ideas ping-pong off one another as fluidly as they do. That free-form dynamic comes through on the shape-shifting “I Am an Ape”, which moves easily across genres, from funk to jazz to classical. As if working with each other isn’t enough, Byrne and Clark bring rabble rousers Antibalas and the Dap-Kings into the fold on “The One Who Broke Your Heart”, which conveys an unadulterated joy that shows a lot of heart for a duo better known for its heady music, especially when Byrne implores to “Sing it loud / It will keep you safe and warm.” If that sounds a bit all over the place on paper, it’s actually not when performed, because these are artists who are comfortable working on the margins of styles and traditions, apparently even more so when they’ve got good backup.
In turn, cooperating so well ends up drawing out the best from both participants, putting a twist on their individual approaches that only distills what’s most essential about their respective visions. What really stands out about Love This Giant is how Clark’s songwriting has rarely sounded so organic and intuitive, as if she’s figured out how to mix aesthetics and sentiment by osmosis working alongside someone who’s been perfecting that balance his whole career. On “Ice Age”, the most St. Vincent-esque number on Giant, Clark’s slicing guitar lines and ethereal, above-it-all vocals are more palpable than ever, underlined and rounded out by the brass and bass on it. More surprising, though, is how Clark’s lyrics here are as personal and sympathetic as they are — when Clark sings in a high, thin voice to a down-and-out friend, “We won’t know just what we lost until your winter thaws,” she might as well be referring to how her own sometimes frosty art-rock melts here. Likewise, “Optimist” fleshes out that light-headed fairy-tale quality that has permeated Clark’s catalog, pushing past St. Vincent’s stylized surrealism to strike a tone that evokes more yearning and soul.
Byrne, too, gains something out of the project, with contributions that recall some of Talking Heads’ best early material, just repurposed and updated with a more contemporary sensibility. To get intertextual, the bemused social commentary of “Dinner for Two” and “I Should Watch TV” brings to mind the character sketch of “Found a Job” from More Songs About Buildings and Food, as if revisiting that song’s young couple after they’ve moved up in the world and into the Internet age. While the snarky “Dinner for Two” is a polished set-piece about a pair of lovers caught up in the superficialities of the day-to-day so that they never have real time for each other, “I Should Watch TV” finds the boob-tube-obsessed protagonist of “Found a Job” disoriented by the information overload of reality TV and the 24-hour cable news cycle, as Byrne bemoans how the virtual reality of human connection slips ever farther from his grasp. These themes of alienation are as relevant as ever, if not more so, a point punctuated by how frenetic and vital “I Should Watch TV” sounds.
Putting new variations on familiar themes is one thing, but the best measure of how this project succeeds is the way the twosome is able to push each other to expand their horizons, all the more impressive considering how much ground they’ve already covered in their careers. Indeed, one of the joys of the album comes from the sense you get that working together only gives Byrne and Clark more opportunities to indulge their sweet tooth for pop experimentation by getting inspiration from one another. With “The Forest Awakes”, they take things in yet another direction by placing more emphasis on the electronic beats that pop up here and there on Giant, approximating a Björk-like quality of making the futuristic feel magical and spiritual. Above all, though, their reputation for forward-thinking artsy pop is most richly deserved on the coda “Outside of Space and Time”, as Byrne and Clark egg each other on to innovate, starting with a poignant horn arrangement carrying resonant Copland-esque overtones, before stretching it into a loping chamber-pop composition.
Although you wouldn’t expect anything less from artists of this high a caliber, it still comes as a pleasant surprise how cohesive, complete, and thought through Love This Giant is for a one-off all-star collab. Then again, it’s doubtful that Byrne would put his good name on the line for a vanity project, any more than Clark would lend her cred to one. Love This Giant shows that when you have as much self-knowledge as Byrne has and as much self-confidence as Clark does, it’s easier to place your trust in someone else doing right by you.