Review Summary: Is it the truth or merely a description?
David Byrne is and has always been the insightful fellow, tracing back to his halcyon days with Talking Heads. Taking the world's events into his repertoire, subtly or not, has been a trait of his ever since 1978's "Don't Worry About the Government," which paid attention to Byrne's upbringing in Maryland and to the workers which inhabited his home. But with American Utopia
, Byrne puts aside the pre-conceived notion of making his thoughts toward the political situation in America ironic or satirical, which is another trait of his songwriting. Not quite as neurotic as it is serious, Byrne's latest aims towards positive thinking and working together to oust the powers that undoubtedly make the nation (and the world, by extension) a weird place to live in. Entitled "Reasons to be Cheerful," the multimedia project American Utopia
is a byproduct of, the project as well as the album, tries it best to give us reasons to be optimistic in spite of what is going on around us from day-to-day. Byrne often asks himself: "Why has this happened"" "Why did we take this path"" but instead opts to ask himself on American Utopia
: "Why not"" In short, why not sing about what's wrong with the world" Why not give people to be happy despite the blatant misdeeds of those in power" But to ask "Why not"" is to delve deeper into what makes Byrne's album work as well as it does, even despite some rather naive slips on the overly bright "Every Day is a Miracle" and the unremarkable misstep "Bullet."
despite the chance at becoming a politically-charged vent towards particular injustices, instead aspires to give hope rather than add onto the dumpster fire of negativity; or so to say, Byrne sits us down and gives us reasons to be cheerful. "I Dance Like This" goes through a checklist of worldly worries: the money, the lifestyle, the expectations, before devolving into a nervous chorus that both urges us to fight the problems we are facing and to find comfort in whatever encourages you to power through the stressful moments. "Dog's Life" could possibly take on the viewpoint of what an animal would think of what's happening in the world, when in one line, Byrne immediately shoots down such an idea when a dog "cannot imagine what it’s like to drive a car;" whereas "The Pope doesn't mean shit to a dog" from "Every Day is a Miracle" ultimately proves this is a problem humankind must face alone, juxtaposing Byrne's lyric on "Animals" from several decades earlier. Byrne isn't shying away from the bigger picture on American Utopia
by the pretense of making a positive record, but is trying his damn best to encourage listeners to contribute to making the world a better place and fixing the problem they may have perpetuated.
On 2001's "Broken Things," Byrne repeatedly asks for someone to fix him, to help him; this idea is subverted seventeen years later: it's not just about Byrne anymore, it's about all of us and the world we live in. If we cannot fix the world, we are all in trouble - which is very much a general idea of what American Utopia
is warning us about. But within the quirkier aspects of Byrne's songwriting is a maturity that has never been so prominent before on any of his records before now; Byrne very obviously has enough life experience to put thought into his words and not
set out to create a reactionary work based on the disappointment he and many other feel towards recent events that very much affect him and the people around him.
On "Doing the Right Thing," Byrne urges not only himself, but everyone else, to simply do what they feel is "the right thing." In a simplistic message like that, Byrne packs enough emotional punch in a beautifully-composed piece that asks so little from its audience, but propels it into a realm of urgency that contradicts Byrne's "Reasons to be Cheerful." That's how an album like American Utopia
sets itself apart from many of its politically-inspired counterparts, but with an added bonus of containing a treasure trove of gorgeous contributions from artists such as Daniel Lopatin, Sampha, and longtime collaborator Brian Eno, who had a hand in the beginnings of Utopia
with his contribution of drum patterns for Byrne's use. American Utopia
doesn't reassure those worried about the state of the world around them; it doesn't lecture them on what they should or should not do, nor does it force any political opinion onto you; hell, Byrne doesn't act condescending and believe he's in the right, instead hoping he's doing what he thinks is right. All it wants to ask you is this one simple question: "Why not"" All you need to do is figure out the answer.