David Byrne is up there with one of the things I’m most thankful for in the history of music; after and alongside his release of 8 studio albums with Talking Heads, he continued to release his own material for the next 30 years. Despite not being head over heels for any of his solo work other than My Life in The Bush of Ghosts, I had high hopes for this release after hearing the first single from it, Everybody’s Coming to My House. Its punchy new wave sound complete with a whirlwind peppy horns and synths brought me back to his roots with a modern twist, and made me think American Utopia even had the potential to be one of the best albums of 2018.
Unfortunately, American Utopia wasn’t quite Byrne’s grand return to the music scene that I’d hoped it would be. The album’s instrumentals seem awkward and out of place; just look at a track like I Dance Like This, which begins in a piano-ballad style then suddenly whips in this fast electronic beat in the chorus. It’s like it’s desperately trying to convince us it’s interesting or make up for a lack of substance by rapidly switching between two styles that don’t fit with each other. Most of the record comes across as messy, insubstantial, or both. Some songs have instrumentals that feel entirely random in their context; the island/safari vibe to Every Day is a Miracle is a good example. When the verses come in, a clusterfuck of synths and drums crash into each other, horns are tossed into the mix at one point... I have to wonder what Byne’s thought process was here. The track just switches between generic and sloppy relentlessly.
But to be fair, a few of the cuts didn’t fall flat on their face entirely. This is That does feel a little awkward and disconnected with the aspects of the track trying to go in different directions, but it’s not half as bad as a moment like I Dance Like This. The production is a psychedelic whirlwind of thunderous drums and strange synthetic layers that fade into melancholy pianos and ambience that’re interesting at the very least. And I want to enjoy the closing track Here, as the bleak ambient sound with atmospheric vocals seemed promising enough. However, it still drift into anything genuinely satisfying and instead feels tacked onto the end of the record for the sake of it.
And the record doesn’t only irritate me sonically; the songwriting is pretty unforgivable as well. American Utopia seems well-intentioned enough, but with lyrics like “my mind is a soft boiled potato” or “the brain of a chicken and the dick of a donkey / a pig in a blanket and that’s why you want me”, how effective could they really be? Dog’s Mind is equally difficult to take seriously, with lyrics like “we are dogs in our own paradise in a theme park of our own, doggy dancers doing doody, doggy dreaming all day long”, dramatic strings, pianos, and ambient synths that increase in intensity and make David’s statement seem more shallow. The vocal performances on this album are also tough to get past. Byrne doesn’t have what he used to and struggles to hit a lot of the higher notes; sometimes he tries to make up for it with forced eccentricity, like the awkward hook on It’s Not Dark Up Here. It’s understandable that Byrne doesn’t have the ability he used to, but it takes away from the record’s enjoyability and is waaay too distracting to look past.
So although American Utopia shares some of the same characteristics of early Talking Heads material and pokes its head more towards new wave than much of Byrne’s other solo work, this record disappointed me more than expected. It ultimately falls flat from delivering memorable moments and crashes together into this awkward pool of sound with elements that work against each other rather than with, and manifested no desire in me to return. But kudos to the guy for continuing to create this many years later, even when the products aren’t my cup of tea.