Over the past few years, David Byrne has made his best music as a guest performer on other artists’ tracks, due in part to his increasingly Zelig-like ability to insert himself into collaborations whose utter awesomeness exists in inverse proportion to the amount of sense they make on paper. For example, here’s Dave singing the hook on N.A.S.A.’s superb “The People Tree,” featuring Chali 2na and Gift of Gab:
And then there’s the insanely addictive “Toe Jam,” from Fatboy Slim’s BPA project:
It only stands to reason, then, that a full-length collaboration between Byrne and Fatboy would be crazy awesome, especially if it’s a two-disc song cycle about Imelda Marcos that features guest vocals from a cast of characters including Sharon Jones, Sia, Nellie McKay, Tori Amos, Steve Earle, Cyndi Lauper, and Kate Pierson.
Well, yes and no. Conceptually, Here Lies Love is every bit as wonderfully daffy as you’d hope for something from Byrne, and if the music collected therein sometimes feels disappointingly safe, it also hangs together quite a bit better than it has any right to. The album is intended to be a sort of multimedia experience, with a deluxe package that includes a book and a DVD, but you don’t need to care about Imelda Marcos — or even know who she is — to listen. I mean, really, if you’re a David Byrne fan, you’ve probably grown accustomed to lyrics that don’t follow straight lines; if you’re like me, you’ve learned to absorb his songs as a whole rather than trying to sort out the sometimes garbled strands of lyrics and music they contain. Here Lies Love rewards this approach, gently swaying between midtempo grooves and dance beats, with its rotating lineup of vocalists adding bits of color to the palette.
It’s probably worth mentioning that although their names are above the title, Here Lies Love is only a David Byrne and Fatboy Slim album in the way 1998’s Largo belonged to its organizers, Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian; they may have had everything to do with the songs, but you’re only going to hear them in the grooves. (Byrne steps behind the microphone for “American Troglodyte,” but it’s one of the set’s weaker tracks.) This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it’s hard not to miss Byrne’s slippery vocals adding the extra element of loopiness the album is missing — often, it just feels like a pretty solid pop album. Which is no small thing, especially for someone who listens to as many below-average pop albums as me, but then, I don’t look for “solid” from David Byrne; I look for songs that flirt with the margins and challenge me to think about pop music in a new way. Whatever joys Love contains, and there are a few, that challenge is missing.