This is a short review of a David Byrne show in the Olympia that I went to with my wife and we both really loved. Grown Backwards is the only solo album of his I have spent proper time with. That formal excellence aversion I mention below: I think that never went away. Right now, October 2022, my kids are finding their way into Talking Heads because Stranger Things included ‘Psycho Killer’ on its Season 4 soundtrack. So their dad has been accidentally playing their Best Of really loud while they are within earshot. The older son does this gorgeous loping dance to ‘And She Was’. A little gazelle, this guy.
BECAUSE I was ten at the time and busy grooving to Wham!, it didn’t occur to me when ‘Road To Nowhere’ was a hit for Talking Heads that the shrieks that close out the song might be borne of the terror and despair that comes with seeing a crazed fundamentalist Christian president getting a second term that could see the Book of Revelations realised. Twenty years later, it does now.
“The Republican Party asked me to write a campaign song for them,” said David Byrne by way of introduction. “I hope they like it”. Then his lone acoustic guitar thudded out that urgent bass line, he began to sing and with glee everyone joined in, last of all his magnificent band, and the roof lifted off the place; and maybe because Reagan was in again by the time this song first surfaced, and Bush is not, ‘Road To Nowhere’ closes now not with mournful keening but with elating, fangs-bared, howls of defiance.
Anger is an energy in excelsis.
It was a telling moment because, though it’s a given that any time spent with Byrne will be culturally adventurous and even intellectually stretching, it’s not always clear that emotion will be involved. Talking Heads never did it for me, and the restless genre-hopping that has characterised Byrne’s solo career has often smacked of the pursuit of cold formal excellence – the wonderful Grown Backwards excepted.
But old songs got new heart here. Byrne’s illuminating foreword to ‘And She Was’ brought an extra insight into its celebration of a young woman’s spiritual awakening in an industrial estate. (It turns out the line “And she could hear the highway breathing” is Terence McKenna in under ten syllables.)
Then, oldest of all, though it’s new to Byrne, the taut, tender Tosca strings swelled behind him on Verdi’s ‘Un De Felice, Eterea’. He knows he’s no tenor and he can’t quite technically hack it. But he persists, night after night, because he understands two things. The artist in him knows your reach should always exceed your grasp, and the pop singer knows the most affecting trick he has is to let his voice crack as he tries for a high note he’ll never hit. Simple things.