Review: David Byrne’s “American Utopia”

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It’s been ten years since David Byrne released “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” a collaboration with Brian Eno. Released in a year that brimmed with optimism in the U.S. leading up to a presidential election, the music, in turn, reflected that same spirit.

The United States in 2018 is a markedly different country into which Byrne released his latest album, “American Utopia.” And Byrne, who has already reacted directly to the changing national culture following the 2016 election, has made this album his mission statement for the country. The music is not so much optimism as it is encouragement. His mission statement? Hang in there, it’s not so bad.

A constant theme in Byrne’s discography has been how much art, music, and dance can enrich one’s existence. The lead single of “American Utopia,” the Eno collaboration “Everybody’s Coming To My House” set the tone for the remainder of the album, treating the entire listening audience as guests at his house party. The opening “I Dance Like This” continues this spirit with Byrne extolling the pleasures of dancing regardless of his talent.

Outside of the subjective pleasures of dancing, sprinkled throughout the album are vague references to what could only be interpreted as the current U.S. political landscape. The always outspoken social critic Byrne would be amiss to avoid such topics as the role of the media and art in public life, and for the most part, when he references something it’s ambiguous enough to be open to interpretation.

However, Byrne never spells things out directly, though he’d be the first to admit he doesn’t know the right thing to do. “I have no prescriptions or surefire answers, but I sense that I am not the only one looking and asking,” he stated in a press release for the album.

As a result, Byrne’s simple lyrical declarations like “Love one another” might make it easy to accuse him of naivete. Simplifying the pressures of modern living through the eyes of a  dog in “Dog’s Mind” may be too silly for its own good. And in a post-Parkland America, the opening line of “Bullet” may have some listeners pulling their shirt collar nervously.

However, David Byrne is an accomplished musician and each song does showcase the deep, inventive rhythms that his long career is known for. For all his esoteric lyrics that can be misinterpreted as cynicism or thoughtlessness, the music on each song is always interesting and always creative, keeping the mood bright.

Case in point is a true album highlight, the unabashedly sunny “Every Day Is A Miracle,” which retains the same unblemished optimism of “Everything That Happens”-era Byrne. “Every day is a miracle / Every day is an unpaid bill” he sings, acknowledging that even the mundane, annoying and politically divisive aspects of life can still be reminders that one is still alive.

Byrne’s music is a reminder that the simple pleasures of life can still be celebrated, whether it’s singing a song or dancing to music. “American Utopia” at its core is a successful continuation of this spirit.

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