by Rick Rockwell
Although he takes second billing too often, Brian Eno is having quite a year. And that great 2008 is about to crescendo with his just-released collaboration with David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.
Some may not realize Eno is the producer who shaped one of the dominant pop albums of 2008, Coldplay’s Viva la Vida or Death and All his Friends. For those who do know Eno as Coldplay’s knob-twirling genius, and for his work with U-2, it seems odd that the rest of his musical resumé is almost forgotten now: his truly experimental side or how he was a pioneer of both glam rock and new wave.
So flash backward 27 years to the release of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Eno’s experiment with Byrne (where Eno got top billing). This was a natural progression. Eno had just finished producing arguably three of the best Talking Heads albums (More Songs About Buildings and Food, Life in Wartime, and Remain in Light) which made him an intimate collaborator with Byrne. Think of how Sir George Martin teamed with The Beatles and you’ll get the idea of Eno’s contributions to those great Talking Heads releases. (So much so, that some critics refer to Eno as the fifth Talking Head.) Although it doesn’t sound so experimental today, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was an edgy trip into world beats, noisy mixes, radio samples, and sounds filtered with ambient quirks: it was music from far away, when it was first released. (Interestingly, this critic heard the album for the first time on an indigenous radio station on the Ojibwe reservation near Hayward, Wisconsin, where it seemed completely appropriate.) At the time, few realized Byrne and Eno had created a sonic time tunnel: they found the recipe for what works in pop and rock in the 21st Century.
That brings us to Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, which seems very much part of the present rather than another leap into the future.
Some of this is how the pair approached the album. Bush of Ghosts was designed as an experiment using vocal samples in languages other than English and radio broadcasts in place of lead vocals. However, the new album is like those classic Talking Heads releases, hightlighting Byrne’s work as a lyricist and musician. The result is the best work Byrne has produced in decades, maybe since the Talking Heads’ True Stories from 1986.* Thus “Strange Overtones,” the first single may start with electronic filtering which creates an odd burbling but it quickly becomes akin to latter-day Talking Heads, a pop song with an eccentric heart. (This song, penned almost as a note from Byrne to Eno, even makes a lyrical nod to the time since their last collaboration: “This groove is out of fashion. / These beats are 20 years old.”)
Both Byrne and Eno, in their album notes, say they were attempting to make a type of modern, electronic gospel music. They accomplish this on a third of the tracks (the title song, “One Fine Day,” and “The River,” which also makes reference to Sam Cooke) by slowing the tempo and layering Byrne’s vocals, effectively creating a choir. With its hymn-like arrangement, “My Big Nurse,” also approximates this terrain, but the acoustic guitars and Byrne’s delivery actually give this song more of an alt-country, folky flourish. However, you won’t find any Louisiana-style ravers like “Papa Legba” from the Talking Heads here. And the attempts at electronic gospel aren’t this album’s strengths.
As might be expected, Eno’s production touches and synthesizers color in all the edges of this collection of 11 songs. “Poor Boy” with its dark percolating synthesizer undercurrent, electronic and acoustic drum mix and world-beat approach is the only number that really recalls Bush of Ghosts, and it’s a true stand-out. “I Feel My Stuff,” with Eno’s avant-garde piano introduction and the twin guitar workout between Leo Abrahams and Phil Manzanera is another success.
In the end, what the aptly titled Everything That Happens Will Happen Today gives us is a musical statement for its times, which evokes discussions of the past with thoughts about such positive collaborations in the future.
*An important note: David Byrne was not the only key member of the Talking Heads. Apparently, Byrne’s imperious nature as the leader of that band — perhaps reacting to the critics who rarely gave other band members credit — and Byrne’s need for more creative control doomed the Talking Heads.
(The photo is actually a Photoshop collage of two different photos. The left side shows Brian Eno and is a photo by Bungopolis using a GNU Free Documentation License. The right side shows David Byrne and is a photo by vonlohmann of San Francisco via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. David Byrne will open his solo tour to promote Everything That Happens Will Happen Today in Bethlehem, PA on Sept. 16. To see a video for "Moonlight in Glory" from Eno and Byrne's first collaboration, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, please check below. Also below, a musical widget that allows the streaming of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, which is available directly from Byrne & Eno from their website. As of this writing, "Strange Overtones" is still available as a free download directly from Byrne & Eno.)
David Byrne and Brian Eno
Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
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by Rick Rockwell