Pros:Interesting concept, some good songs, good guest vocalists.
Cons:Too theatrical. A few duds. Odd concept. Dated musical style. Not enough Byrne vocals.
The Bottom Line: Quirky concept album of interest to Byrne and Fat Boy Slim fans. Most songs have theatrical arrangements.
David Byrne's Here Lies Love, is the new 2 disc, 22 song cycle collaboration between former Talking Heads front-man Byrne and Norman Cook ( aka Fatboy Slim). It's Byrne's concept and the concept album tells two stories. One story is about Philippine's First Lady Imelda Marcos and her imagined thoughts and concerns as she rose to prominence. The other story is about Estella Cumpas, the servant who helped raised Imelda and was promised she would always be taken care of by Imelda and her family.
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The stories are told (not quite chronologically) using music that mimics and embraced the club music from 70s disco era because that's the music Imelda Marco loved. She also loved going to the clubs and dancing all night long. The songs incorporate several quotes from Imelda and her husband, former President Ferdinand Marcos.
There are 22 spotlighted guest singers on the tracks which include: Tori Amos, Kate Pierson (B-52s) Cyndi Lauper, Sharon Jones, Theresa Anderson, Annie Clark (St. Vincent), Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Nellie McKay, Natalia Merchant, Allison Moorer, Santigold, Sia, and Martha Wainwright, Florence Welch. Steve Earle provides the voice of Ferdinand Marcos and David Byrne sings lead on one song and shares the spotlight on another.
Byrne had the original concept for the project and began writing several songs, later asking Cook (Fatboy Slim) to join the project. He did and co-wrote several of the songs as well as helping with the arrangements. After several years of on again/off again work and attention, the project has been released on April 6th.
Byrne explains that some years ago he read the book The Emperor by the late Ryszard Kapuscinski. In the book, Haile Selassi the ruler of Ethiopia for several decades was interviews and Byrne pictured a very surreal life for this leader who existed in a bubble of a privileged life.
Then a few years later, Byrne read an article about Imelda Marcos, which mentioned that Imelda loved to go to discos and hang out at Studio 54, Regines and other exclusive velvet rope place in various cities. The challenge of writing about life inside a bubble from the perspective of someone like Imelda intrigued David Byrne. He noted in Imelda’s case it would come with its own soundtrack (70’s club and disco music). After a year of research, Byrne found a narrative arc involving the rise of Imelda to her position or power, paralleled with the little known rather tragic story of Estrella, the woman who raised Imelda as a child.
There is no mention of the famous Imelda shoes in the story or on the album it should be noted, since the narrative is mainly about Imelda’s rise to power and fame, not her decline and fall from power (which is when the 1000s of pairs of shoes were discovered). Byrne writes: ‘the shoes and even the house on the palace grounds filled to the roof with cans of Heinz Sandwich Spread were irrelevant. The story I am interested in is more about asking what drives a powerful person—what makes them tick? How do they make and re-make themselves? Estrella reminds Imelda (and us) of Imelda’s past, or her origins. Imelda doesn’t want to be shackled by her past –who does?
The interesting and ambitious project is now available in a couple of different ways, including a 2 CD set of music and a special package of music with a DVD that includes footage to go along with 6 of the album’s songs.
The album is a soundtrack for a yet to be staged theater piece reminiscent of Jesus Christ Superstar which began as an album, then staged concert. This one could have been a truly awful project—or it might have been something truly spectacular, particularly when you consider the collaboration and participation of so many talented artists.
The project emerges as too restrained and slightly flat. It doesn’t completely embrace the gaudy garish, tasteless aspects of disco and club music. You might be expecting something that has a guilty pleasure, campy sort of vibe to it. This does not have that. It is somewhat sympathetic to the protagonists Imelda and Estrella who tell their own parallel stories through the songs and so we don’t get a satiric, overly obsessive set of songs with wild exaggerated lyrics part reality, part fantasy. Some of they lyrics are very cheesy. The popularity of Karaoke in the Phillipine culture isn't explored, and the disco music motif actually limits the project.
The songs are well produced with a lush somewhat theatrical sound, giving an odd imperial sound to what could have been crass and simplistic disco era type beats. It’s a bit too Gilbert and Sullivan, poised, almost too carefully most of the time. It also suffers from NOT having David Byrnes quirky vocals on most of the songs. It needs them. Many of the songs are good, a handful are very very good with interesting performances but several songs because of their smooth vocals sound too smooth, too Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick pop-disco rather than garish or distinctive.
A handful of songs manage to make an impression Florence Welch singing the opening Here Lies Love; Sharon Jones’ Dancing Together; Roisin Murphy singing Don’t You Agree are disc one stand-outs; and Sia sounding very Feist like on Never So Big (disc 2) is also good.
Even better are songs that have a definite Talking Heads/ David Byrne sound to them which include Kate Pierson singing along to The Whole Man; and Santigold singing Please Don’t which includes a few in the background utterances from Byrne. Seven Years; a half talked half sung theatrical operatic styled song with Byrne playing the character of Benigno Nino Aquino; and Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) singing some Imelda ‘thoughts’ is listenable. Natalia Merchant’s vocal performance on Order 1081 is also quite good though the song is a bit too long and the lyrics almost too narrative based with a couple of really wince inducing forced rhymes.
The best tracks on the album:
American Troglodyte, an above average David Byrne song, the only one on the album where he takes the lead vocal. And the Why Don’t you Love Me duet that closes the album on a high note sung by Cyndi Lauper and Tori Amos.
Byrne restricting his lyric writing to a definitive narrative arc seems most of the time to make him too cautious. He imagines what these character might be thinking. But as a CD we don't SEE these characters and we don't really get to know or care about them. Most don't have much sympathy for Imelda who took lots of money from the poor to fund her lavish lifestyle.
Byrne’s ambitious intriguing unique musical project may not make for the kind of 2 CD set of music most are looking for—but with a little tweaking, it might make for quite an interesting Broadway musical.
The development of this project and what David writes about the creation of the songs in the generous book of notes including in the CD package may make you listen and appreciate many of the songs on the CD that don’t quite stand out on their own.
3 1/2 stars raised to 4.
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