Byrne lays his cards on the table with Now I'm Your Mum. It's a ridiculously upbeat tune and runs through three or four different grooves before it finishes. It's packed with horns and Byrne's falsetto – after all, this is a song about having a sex change operation.
Once upon a time Byrne and Eno were out walking when they were set upon by a gang of youths. As they were being attacked, and as Byrne was being dragged into some bushes, Eno overhead not a scream or a shout from Byrne, but merely the softly spoken words 'Uh-oh'. Uh-oh also summed up the critical reaction to this album. What an earth was going on? Byrne has seemingly changed from the cool person at the party that everyone wants to know to the rather embarrassing guest that, once drunk, gets up on the table and happily and unselfconsciously dances in front of everyone. In fact, your reaction to this kind of behaviour pretty much sums up what your reaction to Byrne's solo output will be. If you think – how demeaning, they may be having fun but they're flashing their knickers everywhere – then you won't get on with most of Byrne's solo output. If you think – good for them, they're doing what they like and they're not causing anyone any harm – then you'll probably get on with his recent albums and not worry that he's no longer the coolest kid on the block.
Byrne lays his cards on the table with Now I'm Your Mum. It's a ridiculously upbeat tune and runs through three or four different grooves before it finishes. It's packed with horns and Byrne's falsetto – after all, this is a song about having a sex change operation. Girls On my Mind and Hanging Upside Down are similarly infectious and upbeat. The album only darkens slightly with tracks like Twistin' in the Wind and A Walk in the Dark. Otherwise the album bounces along, brass and percussion heavy, until the final track Somebody. By this point you realise a few things. One is that Byrne is having a whole lot of fun. He's a man released from a lot of pressures and is just content to do his own thing, regardless of consequences. Robert Wilson won't be on the phone asking about putting this album on the stage but what the hell, you can really dance to it! Part of the explanation for Byrne's enthusiasm might be that he had a few collaborators and favourites with him along for the ride. Angel Fernandez (from Rei Momo) adds a lot to this album and Byrne co-wrote Something Ain't Right with Terry Allen (who worked on the True Stories soundtrack). Add Tom Ze, Nona Hendryx and Steve Sacks and you have quite a band. It's still a New York album but it's lacking Jerry, Chris and Tina. What's the downside to this? Well, the album feels like it was made in the same kind of way as Naked – there appears to be a whole bunch of grooves vying for space. Unlike Naked, which appeared to have too few decent grooves, here there appear to be too many. This is good in one way, but it also means that Byrne is apt to throw the kitchen sink into every song. Obviously the lack of the other Heads has many consequences but I think a lack of discipline, if I can put it like that, emerges in Byrne's early solo career. But this is still an incredibly fun record.
David Byrne (1994)
Byrne had already been doing work raising awareness about HIV and AIDS when his sister-in-law died in 1992. I obviously don't know how Byrne reacted but it is noticeable that his next album was a much more sober affair than Uh-oh. The artwork is simple and in black and white. There are many pictures of Byrne's body. Perhaps it could be interpreted that Byrne was saying that his solo career really started from here: Uh-oh was just a leftover from Rei Momo. Whatever the reason for the artwork, the music on David Byrne is also simple and sombre. Gone are the giddy horns – in their place are guitars. There are guitar solos too, but they are not joyous, and they are there to show pain, awkwardness and confusion. The album kicks off with A Long Time Ago. It is the most pared back track since Byrne's work on True Stories and, perhaps reflecting on the trajectory of his post Heads career, includes the lines 'It is not applause, my dear / no, that was a long long time ago.' Angels and Crash are both based around guitars, drums, bass and a bit of percussion, the latter including the line 'I'm tired of goodbyes and funerals'. A Self Made Man is wistful and sad and for the most part just features a guitar until the song slowly builds and darkens. Back in the Box sounds jolly enough, and a twinkling farfisa solo enlivens Sad Song, but the theme of both tracks is rather bleak. It is probably with the song Strange Ritual that the break with Uh-oh is most apparent. It is a slow song that takes a long time to build – it is closer to a drone than the multi-grooved tracks on the previous album. David Byrne is perhaps the darkest album he has written and his voice is correspondingly brittle and angry – it is a world away from Rei Momo and Uh-oh.
The first thing that strikes you about Feelings is the packaging. The David Byrne dolls and the mood picker are great. Byrne has always been into his design and this is probably the most impressively packaged of his albums. As for the music – well, it is something of a curate's egg, but then this could be said of many of Byrne's solo albums. Fuzzy Freaky, produced and played by Morcheeba, features sequencing and scratching – very modern, David, very modern It is also pretty funky with a wig-out guitar solo and some catchy loops. Miss America is laid back and relaxed – the trumpets are back and there is some nifty latin piano playing. Dance on Vaseline is another funky Morcheeba track whilst The Gates of Paradise manages to be a merger between a hillbilly stomp (complete with lap steel guitar) and a garage track. Well – there's an attempt at some garage drumbeats on it. On Amnesia and Finite=Alright Byrne is crooning once again whilst Wicked Little Doll is almost industrial in its brutality. The Balenescu Quartet turn up on Burnt by the Sun (perhaps as a thank you for covering Hanging Upside Down on one of their albums) and the album closes with They Are in Love, a typical Byrne love song – i.e. it is pretty skewed but still dewy eyed. I remember thinking at the time that this album was a bit of a mess – there was too much going on – but listening to it now it stands up pretty well. There isn't really a focus to this album – it was recorded in different places and features lots of different people – but ultimately I don't think it matters.
Look into the Eyeball (2001)
My favourite of Byrne's solo 'pop' albums. There is a focus on this one – the album is a series of short catchy songs (the album's only 38 minutes long) that never outstay their welcome. Obviously some of the songs are better than others (Broken Things and U.B.Jesus are probably the weakest tracks on the album) but some of Byrnes best pop songs are here. The Great Intoxication and Like Humans Do are fantastic songs. The former features a funky beat and a wonderful chorus. It is another Byrne love song where he manages to convey both the giddy panic of love (think of Civilisation on Grown Backwards) and the sheer dopey-eyed wonder of it. Like Humans Do is simply joyous. Neighborhood is arranged by the great Thom Bell and is suitably funky and laid back. Walk on Water is impossibly sweet, as is Everyone's in Love With You.
Not everything is so laid back – Desconoucio Soy is sung in Spanish and has a pounding beat whilst the Moment of Conception is urgent, heavy and percussive. In a sense one would have to say that Look into the Eyeball is closest in mood to Little Creatures but I would also add that this is a much better album. Watching Byrne tour this album it was obvious how much he enjoyed playing it. Basically this album should be listened to on a summer Sunday morning (after Dusty in Memphis, of course).
Lead us not into Temptation (2003)
This is the soundtrack to Young Adam, Alexander Trocchi's novel of lust, death and canal barges. Byrne came back to Scotland to record this album and there are a few Scottish indie musicians (such as Alasdair Roberts) playing on it. As with Look into the Eyeball there are strings on most tracks. Here they have less range than on the previous album – they are all about creating a mood. The mood is one of brooding menace. Canal Life is particularly mournful and the song evokes the image of a canal barge moving slowly through the water. The emphasis on the cello suggests both the pace of life and the loveless marriage on the barge. Sex on the Docks emerges out of scrapes and features an intrusive piano before it retreats back to the sound of scraping. The violins are largely stately but some tracks are jazzy and one or two feature field recordings made by Byrne.
For Byrne aficionados it is the two vocal tracks at the end of the album that are of most interest. Speechless features vocals but, appropriately, not actual words – Byrne does his formless singing thing that appeared on a couple of the Forest tracks. The Great Western Road does feature Byrne singing and this track (that plays over the credits of the film) is one of Byrne's better songs. Does the album stand up without the film? I'd say yes, though it is an album to listen to whilst reading, say, or doing the crossword. In winter, with a whisky.
Grown Backwards (2004)
A bit of a busy period for Byrne. The necessary focus of the last album has gone, as has the accidental (?) focus of Look into the Eyeball. Grown Backwards was made in the same manner as Feelings – in various times and various places and with various people. One of the tracks presumably came out of the Lead us not into Temptation sessions whilst Morcheeba crop up on another track. Glass, Concrete and Stone – made for the Dirty Pretty Things soundtrack – is a great opening song. It is very simple and features just a cello, a guitar, a marimba and percussion. The song's title, describing somewhere that is 'just a house, not a home' makes sense given that the film is about immigrants living in London. From this we take a stylistic leap as Byrne covers The Man Who Loved Beer, by Lambchop. It is one of my favourite Lambchop tracks and here strings take over from guitars. I'm not sure how much Byrne adds to the song. Talking of stylistic leaps, Byrne then sings Bizet's Au Fond Du Temple Saint with Rufus Wainright. Later on Byrne even attempts some Verdi. Again, I'm not sure how successful these operatic attempts are but it is still fun listening to Byrne straining his voice as he tries to hit the high notes.
Elsewhere Empire could almost be a Knee Plays song and comes complete with a brass band. Civilisation is a lyrical highlight with Byrne describing his awkwardness at going on a date to a restaurant. The album finishes with a monster ten-minute version of Lazy, the song that finally got Byrne onto Top of the Pops. If one can generalise about the album it would be to say that the some of the lyrics are batty (I'm in a church of your hairdo) and some of the songs slip by (Why & Glad, for instance) but overall Byrne still keeps you entertained. Grown Backwards is a pretty uneven collection but it is still of interest, not least because you can hear the echoes of Byrne's previous solo albums.
And there we have it. Not that everything has been covered here. There is The Last Emperor soundtrack (for which Byrne won an Oscar) and plenty of other tracks dotted around the place. Then there are the videos, the books, the exhibitions and the presentation software... I'm a Byrne fan though, and not a Byrne nut. Having said that, if you were to hunt down one book by Byrne I would recommend Strange Ritual – as well as being packed with photos it features some of Byrne's more interesting essays and observations.