Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Here Lies Love by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim

At times beautiful and dynamic, at others awkward and flat, David Byrne and Norman Cook’s Here Lies Love is a rather confounding experience. The double-album’s premise - a song-cycle based around the life of the Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos, a kind of Evita-for-Imelda, if you will - has a touch of loopy genius about it; this and the array of great (mostly female) artists that Byrne has enlisted as vocalists for the record have generated an immense amount of curiosity and excitement about the project. Byrne has presented the songs in a live setting on a couple of occasions and retains the concert’s structure here: that of a mostly linear narrative interweaving the experiences of Marcos and Estrella Cumpas, the woman who looked after her as a child. Musically, the album takes its cues from Marcos’s own predilection for club and dance music, with Cook and collaborator Tom Gandey (Cagedbaby) combining soul, disco, and Latin-beats with (off-)Broadway and techno elements.

“The story I am interested in,” Byrne has said, “is about asking what drives a powerful person—what makes them tick? How do they make and then remake themselves? … Could one bring a ‘story’ and a kind of theatre to the disco?” Well, that’s what Here Lies Love attempts, and if the end result sometimes falls a bit short of expectations, Byrne, Cook and their vocalists/collaborators have nonetheless produced an intriguing, singular work that offers some great pleasures.

On first listen, though, Here Lies Love comes off as lightweight and effete, its sound excessively processed yet under-Cooked, its lyrics by turns over-explicit and sketchy. Byrne’s material seems not so much to embody Marcos as to present her in accordance with a succession of problematic clichés: “a simple country girl who had a dream,” a woman who’d “do anything for the love of her man” etc.

But then finer details start to emerge. Byrne may not be Richard Shindell when it comes to constructing first-person story-songs, but (as the 100-page booklet that accompanies the deluxe edition of the album attests) he’s clearly done his homework on Marcos and her contexts and does well in constructing a coherent musical narrative out of them. Depending on your perspective, the album’s concern to neither deify nor demonise its subject may seem like healthy objectivity or problematic fence-sitting. But it’s likely that listeners who know little about Marcos will emerge from the record with a clearer sense of where she came from and where she ended up, as well as an urge to find out more. (There’s something very cool about an album of dance music inspiring people to head to the library.)

And even when the lyrics and music let the side down a little, the songs are frequently redeemed by the distinctive qualities that the vocalists bring to them. Florence Welch tones down her stridency a notch on the opening title track, or “Prologue,” which offers Marcos’s recollections of herself as “a young girl in Leyte” through the prism of Studio 54-evoking disco. Candie Payne and St. Vincent trade verses sympathetically on the airy bossa nova “Every Drop of Rain” which digs deeper into Marcos’s background, and presents her and Cumpas’s perspectives in effective counterpoint. Tori Amos darts spryly and sensually around the funky “You’ll Be Taken Care Of,” as Marcos’s mother delivers a promise to the young Estrella that will not be fulfilled. Martha Wainwright lends a heartfelt and unaffected vocal to the gentle “The Rose of Tacloban,” while Nellie McKay does well by the appealing “How Are You?”

Backed by Allison Moorer, Steve Earle growls distinctively through the chugging, rather lugubrious rock of “A Perfect Hand,” while Cyndi Lauper evokes the Marcos’s whirlwind courtship on the excitable “Eleven Days.” Moorer herself steps with customary warmth into “When She Passed By,” but the song’s arrangement - country-pop with bursts of Vampire Weekend-esque guitar - isn’t exactly elegant. Róisìn Murphy is luckier: the seductive disco of “Don’t You Agree?” is entirely within her comfort zone, and the track would have slotted quite nicely on to Overpowered. Sung by Charmaine Clamor, the slinky “Walk Like A Woman” subtly exposes the constructed-ness of Imelda’s iconicity, while a restrained Camille captures Marcos among the people on the pleasing “Pretty Face.”

Opening the second disc in fine style, Sharon Jones lends a gritty, robust edginess to the Talking Heads-esque “Dancing Together.” Kate Pierson shouts her way through “The Whole Man” to somewhat wearying effect, but the record then hits one of its strongest patches. Performed by Sia, “Never So Big” is a delight, setting Cumpas’s disillusionment at her treatment by Marcos to an infectious melody. Santigold’s take on the buzzing “Please Don’t” is similarly delectable, sassily presenting Marcos’s manoeuvrings as a global diplomat. Nicole Atkins effortlessly inhabits the soaring soul of “Solano Avenue,” while a sense of political urgency and the devastating effects of the Marcos’s regime enters the album with Natalie Merchant’s plaintive “Order 1081.”

Relegated toward the end of the record, Byrne’s own vocal contributions are intriguing oddities: the twitchy anatomisation of US excess “American Troglodyte” sounds like a Beck reject; it’s engaging but a little arid, and its relevance to the album seems negligible. Detailing Marcos’s relationship with opposition leader Benigno Aquino, the more expansive “Seven Years” pits Byrne against the unearthly vocalising of Shara Worden; backed by strings and electronic noodling it’s an overwrought yet strangely effective piece. But “Why Don’t You Love Me?” - a final duet for Marcos and Cumpas - feels all wrong as a closer. It’s catchy enough, and taken at a decent clip by the powerhouse duo of Lauper and Amos. But, lyrically, Byrne needed to pull something more creative out of the hat than this sour piece that leaves the album’s protagonists caught up in their separate senses of betrayal and seemingly unwilling to do anything about it other than plead and accuse.

But, weaker moments such as these aside, Here Lies Love ultimately proves an enjoyable and absorbing piece of work. Despite its surface accessibility, it’s a record that tends to yield up its treasures slowly, repaying the quality of attention that the listener is willing to give it. It’s an album to grow into, and one that is to be celebrated for its ambition, its oddity, and its antidote-to-iTunes ethos. Immortalising Ms. Marcos alongside Eva Duarte, Jesus Christ and Jerry Springer as the unlikely subject of a pop opera, Byrne and his collaborators have fashioned an erratic but sometimes exhilarating opus that gets you thinking and dancing, together. 4/5

This review will also appear at http://www.wearsthetrousers.com/
Santigold and Roisin Murphy’s contributions are below.

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