David Byrne is weird. Anyone in the world might take that as an insult, but something about his mechanisms hints that he’d likely assume the role, taking it as a compliment. If anyone’s seen the 1986 film True Stories, the accusation isn’t too far off. Fortunately, “weird” works for Byrne. After all, he’s the virtuoso responsible for one of the finest bands of the last three decades, *cough* Talking *cough* Heads. That’s not even touching upon the brilliant work that seeps throughout his solo efforts, including his first, the 1981 masterpiece, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
Of course, much credit should be given to producer and keyboard minimalist Brian Eno. Without Eno, its arguable if Byrne could have ever mastered such songs as “America Is Waiting”, “Mea Culpa” or “Regiment.” There’s diversity in Eno’s craft, as if he has an ear to the ground, where he can capture something on record only plebeians could write about. Need proof? Go spin U2’s The Joshua Tree, an album that paints vivid portraits without ever touching any oils or ink. So to say Eno is a genius, well, that would be somewhat of an understatement… if not cliché.
That’s why its so exciting to see the two work together. While one is obscure and eccentric, the other is bold and endearing. Together, they just happen to create timeless amalgamations of instrumentations (say that twice as fast). Just as it’s interesting to see an old friend, such is the same feeling going into the duo’s new album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. While their former work is over twenty-five years aged, its only now that it seems the years are finally catching up (after all, they’re both at or pushing 60), something that may have carried over from Byrne’s last studio effort, 2004’s Grown Backwards. Not only do the songs feel soft, they sound more assured, and less chaotic.
In a letter regarding the album, Eno goes on to describe the new sounds as something of “electronic gospel.” He couldn’t have said it best. Album opener, “Home”, is instrumentally jubilant, though its Byrne who brings the tempo down, with a melody that’s yearning if not tragically nostalgic. At just over five minutes, the track is a mouthful, but what do you expect when Eno is behind the wheel? (Viva la Vida, anyone?) It’s loud, bombastic and driving, reveling in a syrup-like structure that chugs rather than slides. “My Big Nurse” slouches some yet much like “Home”, its Byrne who carries it forward, his voice in top shape and fit for seemingly anything, a feat that should make any artist at age 56 grovel for. Two tracks into the album, it’s clear that Eno accomplished what he intended to create, a modern gospel record.
“I think I waited too long,” Byrne declares in the successfully ambitious epic, “I Feel My Stuff”, a bouncy shuffle that hinges on an oddball story, with lyrics like: “The cheapest dog, the hottest sun, the fiercest cat & the meanest gun.” There’s social commentary here, but very indirect, which may draw comparisons to some early Heads work. When Byrne hums, “Somedays we exercise/ somedays we harmonize,” one wonders if he’s being pessimistic or humble. Inarguably, it’s one of the strongest tracks on the album, and quite possibly Byrne’s recent career. Not to mention, it’ll make some Radiohead fans happy.
Eno’s presence is obvious in the title track ballad, “Everything That Happens.” A soft organ resonates, building up with passion as track after track of vocals piles on another. It’s beautiful, though vaguely familiar to Brian Wilson’s late effort, 2004’s Smile. It’s followed up by the soulful pop track, “Life Is Long.” Ironically, Byrne is over optimistic here, spouting out mantras like, “Ev’ryone is happy- to be a baby daddy” and “Life is long- if you give it way.” To summarize, the song is touching.
There’s political allegories in “The River”, alluding to global warming with religious-like euphemisms (“We fell down on our knees/ For ev’ry human being”) that flesh out an otherwise ordinary track for these guys. Throughout “Strange Overtones”, Byrne sounds more like a latter day Bowie, gyrating over a sexy beat and send up. It’s a good middle track and one that’s moody enough to resemble the pair’s earlier work. It also leads phenomenally into the industrial laden sludge of “Wanted For Life.” It might trek at an odd pace, but the song blisters from snarky creativity, including sharp, clever lyrics like “Even though you’re smarter than me/ I’ll write your autobiography.”
Gospel or not, the album loses some of its soul. There’s heart in a song like “One Fine Day”, but its a minute too long, overstaying its welcome. It’s actually a relief when the funky dirt of “Poor Boy” comes rolicking over. While nothing severely jawdropping, it strays away from the typical choir-like progressions before, and attempts a different angle of sound. With bongos and a sly guitar line, the song could be a perfect closer, if not for the drolling climb that follows in “The Lighthouse.” The two ease the listener away from the album, with encapsulating tones and an atmosphere that rivals the best of any modern band today (Explosions of the Sky, we’re looking at you!).
It’s unfair to ask for a stellar follow up to an album nearly thirty-years old. Such a task could kill an artist, just go ask Brian Wilson. For what it is, which is an amped up Byrne release, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is an intriguing record with more pull than push. It’s an affidavit of what these artists have come to resemble: unique, peaceful eyes for a chaotic, miserable world. To be less snide and more optimistic in a modern society such as ours today, well, that’s original in itself. Maybe that’s something we all ought to be listening to more often, though perhaps such an outlook is something that comes only with age.
Either way, we’ll find out someday.