David Byrne Feelings

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published July 30, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

it seems like these days David Byrne is better known for who he isn't rather than for who he is. He's isn't a Rock Star. He isn't a Talking Head. He isn't exactly the same person who more than 20 years ago began steering rock in directions nobody knew existed. Years before it became popular or marketable, he meshed African, Latin and electronic genres, tempering them with tales of urban anxiety and claustrophobia that were at once inspirational and harrowing. But that was then, and this is now, and Byrne is all too often written off as an artist past his prime, cruising through genre exercises that have confused both critics and listeners.

But this is unfair -- and undeserved. If anything, Byrne is more productive than ever. In the past few years, he has been showcased on an impressive series of Latin-themed solo records and published a collection of his disarming photographs, "Strange Ritual," and he continues to release works from musicians from around the world on his Luaka Bop label. Moreover, Byrne's new album, "Feelings," is easily his freest, most diverse and optimistic post-Heads work. In addition to the trademark Latin themes, "Feelings" incorporates hip-hop ("Daddy Go Down"), feedback-drenched rock ("The Civil Wars") and even country ("Gates of Paradise"), with assistance by trip-rockers Morcheeba and class-of-'77 kindred spirits Devo. Though Byrne is pleased with the results, he initially feared that the different approaches would make for an incoherent album. "I thought it could very well come out to be a mess -- it could sound like six different bands, all with the same singer," he confessed during a recent phone interview. "But it kind of hangs together. I was surprised."

What isn't quite so surprising is that his embracing of foreign styles has, for better or for worse, cost him his old Talking Heads fan base. He bemoans Americans' resistance to world music, which he blames on a uniquely American arrogance. "America, for a long time -- let's say this century -- has been such a world power that the feeling is that you don't have to listen to anyone else, because 'We're No. 1, so you have to listen to us.'"

Byrne notes that people in other countries, especially musicians, are of two minds on the issue. "People love America, love it," he says. "They love the spirit of 'can do' and innovation, that great, extreme individuality. They don't love the attitude of 'We're America, nobody can touch us, our music's better, our bands are better,' all that kind of shit. And with American record companies, they're 'We don't want to hear your records, you gotta listen to our hits, you gotta listen to our alternative bands.' A lot of people are like, 'Yeah, we love your stuff. But why can't you listen to our stuff, too?'"

Those conflicting attitudes define the landscape of the second song on the new record, "Miss America." With a hard pop sound that provides a backdrop for cutting lines like "I know how tall she is without her platform shoes," the song characterizes the U.S. as a cruel mistress. Partly a testament to her seductive powers and partly an attempt to knock her off of her pedestal, the song is somewhat of a departure for Byrne, who has only recently grown more comfortable writing romantic songs. "I guess I've occasionally found a way to write them where they don't just sound sappy," he says. "Or as a political song that's disguised as a love song."

The vision of "Miss America" and the rest of the record is still uniquely Byrne's, despite the variety of performers on the record, and he now seems loathe to even consider going back to the stifling structure of a band. And given his recent lawsuit against his former Talking Heads bandmates for releasing a record under the name the Heads, titled "No Talking, Just Head," there's little likelihood of that band reuniting. But there are aspects of it that he misses. "It's a complete package," he says. "You write with other people in mind. There's a kind of a camaraderie, an 'us against the world' kind of thing."

Byrne is no longer very interested in facing off against the world. If anything, he's still trying to figure out his place in it, even to the extent of questioning his place as an artist. To consider the assortment of hats he's worn through the years -- producer, filmmaker, photographer -- begs the question: How does David Byrne see himself? "When I go through customs, I tell them that I'm a musician," he says. "And I also mention I'm a photographer, depending on what I'm doing that year. But I'm not fooling myself. I know that at present, the music pays my bills. But you never know when that could change."

If Byrne seems unsure about what's going to happen next, he prefers it that way. "The only way to survive is to change," he says. "The only way to survive is to get your mind off your 'career,' and not to just have a one-track mind, to do other things that you like -- go fishing, or whatever." Turns out this isn't so very far away from the David Byrne who gave us "Psycho Killer" and "Life During Wartime" after all -- he's still honestly confused, but still struggling to make sense of the world and draw all of its disparate elements into his art. "If I only focused on one thing, I'd go nuts."

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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