Somnambule - Writing About Music

David Byrne ~ Grown Backwards

No matter how abstract your taste in music, sometimes you need pop - you need brilliant lyrics borne on catchy tunes to enter your ears, thread their way down your auditory canal then split up to score direct hits on your brain and heart simultaneously. After Talking Heads split up David Byrne had a lengthy affair with south American music - there’s the occasional influence of that audible on Grown Backwards, particularly in the distinct sunnyness that shines down upon lyrics and music imbued with pathos and wry warmth.

Grown Backwards is filled with gorgeous melodies used to underline or counter reactions to Byrne’s characters: the migrant worker (‘Glass, Concrete And Stone’), the stripper’s lover (She Only Sleeps), the websurfing recluse (‘Astronaut’), et al. Byrne even indulges in a couple of operatic arias (Bizet’s ‘Au Fond De Temple Saint’ and Verdi’s Un Di Felice, Eterea’). There’s something about the marriage of their classical melodies with Byrne’s (operatically) amateur voice which makes these outings curiously affecting. Opera can all too often appear forbidding, sung as it is by seemingly supra-human singers whose very gift distances them, at least from this listener. Byrne's interpretation brings these arias within reach of mere mortals like myself.

Byrne’s occasionally infamous wide-eyed irony here gains greater authority when he has the courage to direct it at targets such as laissez-faire capitalism. ‘Empire’s lyric set against its rich string backdrop sends a tiny shiver down the spine:

Please hear the call
What’s good for business is good for us all
For as it is in nature, so it is in life
The weak among us perish
The strong alone survive

After an instrumental passage the song concludes with the following confidently-sung defiance which seems to radiate hope for all:

Voices like thunder, decisions like steel
The past and the future, they belong to us all
From every mountain, the weather and the land
The world that we’ve created
By working hand in hand

This song may be viewed as a key to understanding Byrne's maturity. If he had written this song ten years ago, he might arguably have left the innate horror of the first verse to hang in the air unchallenged, without providing the assertive - and very positive - closure of the final verse. That he has the courage to do so now may be the main reason why this album is so warmly likeable.

Byrne’s quizzical approach here never descends into cuteness: he’s sometimes baffled, but always inquisitive, always apparently willing to share ideas, thoughts and dreams in an attractively sympathetic manner. He makes his perspective clear without forcing it upon the listener. The sound of Grown Backwards is richly orchestrated with string section, accordion, marimba, hoover, theremin, etc. The final track is a lush nine minute version of ‘Lazy’, Byrne’s recent hit – it’s a fine, contrary way to end an album that’s at times joyful, at times sad but always enjoyable. Walk, don’t run and go get a copy of this album... strike that... skip, don’t walk and go get a copy of this album.

Colin Buttimer
April 2004
Published by Absorb