David Byrne and St. Vincent: Love This Giant

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Love This Giant, it’s that collaboration is the sincerest form of flattery.

David Byrne and St. Vincent

Love This Giant

Label: 4AD/Todo Mundo
US Release Date: 2012-09-11
UK Release Date: 2012-09-10

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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