April 29, 2004

Growing in Every Direction

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Despite being touted as Byrne’s “opera album,” Grown Backwards is just as resistant to categorization as the rest of his Heads-less output (there are, after all, only two opera numbers). Sure, he had his “ambient albums” and his “orchestral albums” and his “tropicalia albums,” but even those were schizophrenic buffets of aural exploration. Undeniably, Byrne is the consummate genre-hopper. Since his days in Talking Heads, his musical identity crisis has been his fans’ good fortune. And Grown Backwards is no exception. To hear the art-rock demigod turn from a Lambchop cover to a melodramatic duet with Rufus Wainwright to his by-now-trademark Latin-tinged tunesmithery is to witness the further evolution of one of the greatest living musical masters.

The decision to cover Lambchop’s classic “The Man Who Loved Beer” pays off tenfold, with the Tosca Strings adding even more grandiosity than Kurt Wagner squeezed into the original. Byrne first played this song with Yo La Tengo at one of their infamous Hanukkah shows at Maxwell’s, and it fits in wonderfully on Backwards.

Byrne’s voice has developed from his original, quirky yelp into something uncannily similar to that of another rock icon — none other than Lou Reed. However, Byrne manages to mix that detached irony with his always exuberant, theatrical phrasing. It is that latter quality that lends an authenticity to the two opera numbers on the album. His reworking of Georges Bizet’s “Au Fond du Temple Saint” is an extravagant affair, with Byrne and Wainwright both pushing their vocal prowess to dazzling emotional heights, propelled even further by the commanding Tosca players. “Empire,” with its churchy organ and regal horns, has Byrne delivering caustic, ironically capitalist mantras like, “Young artists and writers/ Please heed the call/ What’s good for business/ Is good for us all.” Fitting to follow this is “Tiny Apocalypse.” Some of the South American inspired tracks hark back to his terrific worldbeat album, Rei Momo, and arguably beat Arto Lindsay at his own game. One of these, “Pirates,” is probably the song most reminiscent of the Talking Heads days, and it’s a quite welcome moment of nostalgia.

New York City seeps from these songs like sap from a tree, giving the tunes that same urbane mysticism and diversity of influences heard from fellow rock deities and Big Apple denizens Reed and Bowie (a recently transplanted New Yorker). You can practically hear Byrne walking past the Cuban part of town, picking up a few rhythms; then hearing some hip-hop booming from a passing SUV; then visiting the Metropolitan Opera House that same night. And yet, he imbues this collection with a surprising cohesion, largely thanks to the consistent presence of the Tosca Strings, but also due to Byrne’s unmistakably eccentric approach to whatever style he attempts.

Grown Backwards is Byrne’s first album for Nonesuch, which is fast becoming the heroic forerunner for artists that blend experimental innovation with mainstream appeal. After all, legend has it the label saved Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from obscurity. Other genre-defiant crossover acts like folk/jazz hotshot Bill Frisell, synth-pop rogues the Magnetic Fields, and avant-classical mainstays the Kronos Quartet don the fancy Nonesuch sleeve and further attest to the label’s singular vision. With Byrne on board, and a new Wilco record on its way, Nonesuch is ready to take over the world, or at least a few slots on critics’ end-of-the-year lists.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer