In a world where political divisions run deep, where social media echo-chambers and internet algorithms seem only to reinforce each side’s prejudices and preconceptions, the gulf between the “us” and the “them” can seem to be an unbridgeable chasm. Yet despite this growing sense of alienation from “the other”, Talking Heads front-man David Byrne wants all sides to recognise that the news makes us all feel like the world is falling apart, and in that lies a common humanity. Among this gloominess Byrne wants us all to find reasons to be cheerful, and so his latest album, American Utopia, is a musical component of his Reasons to Be Cheerful project.
While American Utopia is billed as a solo album from Byrne, Brian Eno is listed as a co-writer on eight of the ten tracks – and he is a performer on half of those – and the Brooklyn-based experimental electronic music producer/composer Daniel Lopatin – also known as Oneohtrix Point Never – is the co-writer on the other two songs. So Byrne isn’t going it alone when he attempts to tackle the big ideas, and with that pedigree, American Utopia was never in danger of becoming a forgettable, bland record. But for all the grand ideas that inform the album’s conception, and considerable talents of its creators, American Utopia isn’t an especially memorable album.
Opening number, I Dance Like This, sees Byrne drag his lacklustre vocal performance over a pretty but insubstantial keyboard melody, and it is the semi-industrial electronic beats of the chorus that drives the track’s intrigue. It is an interesting juxtaposition that sideswipes the listener. Gasoline and Dirty Sheets offers an askew glance at politics and consumerism, but if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the second song on the record it would go unnoticed as the album rushes through its thirty-seven-minute runtime. Dog’s Mind and Bullet take interesting narrative perspectives, but only the latter really exploits its viewpoint to full effect.
American Utopia succeeds as an album in that it is remarkably easy to listen to in its entirety, yet somehow the individual songs don’t really stand on their own – lead single, Everybody’s Coming to My House, being an exception. In fact, it would be possible to listen to snippets of random songs and gain more from teasing out the minutiae of the performances and production than from listening to the tracks in their fullness. Overall, calling American Utopia a good album would be overstating it. Calling it bad would be missing the point. And calling it average would be grossly dishonest. It is what it is.