Few are the albums that come hurtling into your life out of nowhere, splintering your mind, and pouring new ways of hearing into your brain. Perhaps you were awakened to new possibilities by Kid A, or Never Mind the Bullocks, or Free Jazz (or all of the above!). The style of music doesn’t matter; it’s the opening of the doors of perception that counts. The first of these albums for me was Laurie Anderson’s Big Science. It was delivered to me by train, a cassette tape couriered from California to New Mexico by a friend of my parents seeking the limitless vistas of the desert Southwest.
I was 15 and just moving beyond the confines of Top 40 radio and heavy rotation MTV. The tape that lay in my palm that day rearranged my molecules, rewired my brain, reset the clock on my music life. “This is the time, and this is the record of the time.”
My parents had adventurous musical tastes, so I grew up on Coltrane, Zappa, Ravi Shankar, Pink Floyd. I was well prepared for weirdness, but I didn’t yet know about the Velvet Underground, much less Philip Glass or Pauline Oliveros or any of Laurie Anderson’s other avant-garde contemporaries. In the latter half of the 1970s, she was – relative to the greater world of pop music — just another New York City performance artist, combining strange music with kooky visuals and gigging at art galleries, museum openings, and the like. Her 1981 single “O Superman” was merely one more in a loose progression of tiny label singles she’d issued over the years. Then the late great John Peel got his hands on that little record, and, the next thing you know, Laurie Anderson is “ah-ah-ah-ah”-ing her way up to the number two slot on the UK pop charts. Warner Brothers came a-knockin’, Anderson headed into the studio, and, in 1982, Big Science emerged.
This 25th-anniversary edition of the album comes with the video for “O Superman”, its b-side, “Walk the Dog”, and new liner notes written by Laurie herself. As those deeply familiar with her discography may have noticed, Big Science is comprised of the studio versions of songs that she performed as part of her United States I-IV multimedia show (which, in 1984, was issued as a quintuple(!) live LP). As Laurie notes, the material on Big Science is from the Politics section of that show (Transportation, Money, and Love being the others). While this makes for a tidy designation, it undercuts the spectrum of topics covered on the record. Nor does our usual notion of “politics” adequately convey how subtly and humorously subversive Laurie Anderson’s lyrics on the album were.
Not too many artists change the way we look at and perceive the use of language in music, but Anderson is one of its great manipulators. She understands that common expressions can be greatly altered simply through context, phrasing, and small twists on what is expected. Big Science‘s opening track, “From the Air”, is both funny and slightly scary because of Laurie’s deadpan delivery of an airplane pilot’s message to the passengers: “Good evening / This is your Captain / We are about to attempt a crash landing / Please extinguish all cigarettes / Place your tray tables in their upright, locked position.” We are so accustomed to the majority of this patter that the nonchalant notice of our impending annihilation in a twisted tube of molten metal barely registers above the subconscious level. Uh, wait, what’d he just say? Granted, the tight intervals of the sax players, along with David Van Tieghem’s uppercut-jab attacks on the drums, also contribute to the song’s unsettling quality. Mostly, though, the music is there to underscore the ridiculous nightmare of being trapped on a plane with a pilot who’s playing Simon Says over the intercom as you hurtle toward the earth at 32 feet per second squared. The absurdity of the juxtapositions is the hook. Well, that and the song sounds cool, too.
Airplanes appear again in “O Superman”, as Laurie’s vocoder-enhanced voice informs us, “Here come the planes / So you better get ready / Ready to go / You can come as you are / But pay as you go.” Is the price we’ll pay measured in cash or casualties? The message is as ambiguous as a dream, which is what most of Anderson’s music is like. I don’t mean it has a dreamy quality to it, with orchestral washes and twinkling glockenspiels. In fact, the sounds of Big Science are stark and asymmetrical, but they’re also often bizarrely hypnotic. Like many of her musical cohorts of the time, she utilized trance-inducing minimalist themes.
The album isn’t totally reliant upon odd compositions and the upending of language, however. “Born, Never Asked” is almost entirely instrumental, and Laurie’s aching violin melodies are heart-stoppingly plaintive, evoking the title’s lonely truth about the soul’s entry into the mortal coil.
Mostly, though, Big Science truly is about skewed tunes and smart lyrics. “Sweaters” begins with a chorus of hums that sound like a swarm of flying pests, before Anderson breaks the bad news to her sweetheart: “Your mouth / Your eyes / The way you hold your pens and pencils / I no longer love it”. The title track, meanwhile, comes across like an organ melody from a mass, while Laurie’s words critique the endless sprawl of human expansion: “And long cars in long lines and great big signs and they all say: Hallelujah / Yodellayheehoo”. (She also beat Jeff Tweedy to a certain tautological observation, noting, “It’s a sky blue sky”.) The first half of “Let X = X” is mostly handclaps and a few marimba notes, mirroring the simplicity of the titular equation. Hey, sometimes things are exactly as they appear: “I met this guy — and he looked like might have been a hat check clerk at an ice rink / Which, in fact, he turned out to be. And I said: Oh boy, right again”.
Each track on Big Science is a total original. The album came out of nowhere, meeting with great critical acclaim and launching Laurie Anderson’s fine career. One might expect a slew of wannabes to have risen in her wake, but her spot-on blend of concept and execution has proved inimitable. Laurie has since become a better singer, developed stronger pop sensibilities, and created more richly textured music. Still, she will never make a better album than Big Science, because its excellence doesn’t rely on any of those qualities. In fact, like her punk and post-punk contemporaries, the revealing of the music’s skeleton makes it that much clearer why all the component parts are so perfectly aligned. Or, thought of another way, the album is a series of haikus on the absurdity of America and the ungainliness of being alive. And you should know that, if you add more syllables to a haiku, you’re just going to screw it up. Likewise, every sung-spoken word and quixotically performed note on Big Science seems to have been set in just the right place. Twenty-five years later, the album remains an idiosyncratic classic, still capable of opening doors in a new listener’s mind. The record was wonderfully and weirdly out of place in 1982; today, it remains just as un-tethered to the era from which it came. Twisting Laurie’s own language: This is not a record of its time.