Triple Espresso of an Album: David Byrne’s Grown Backwards, HP, 2004.

Just wanted to post this alongside the accompanying live review. Fabulous album all these years later.

Lead Us Not Into Temptation, David Byrne’s soundtrack to Young Adam, was sublime, one of the best records of last year. Take a recent immersion in film scores and a well-known wildly wandering muse, and it’s no surprise that Grown Backwards has all the eclecticism of a soundtrack album, from vibrant chamber pop to protest songs and forwards to full-on arias. It’s like it was made by five different people.

It opens exquisitely. ‘Glass, Concrete and Stone’, a meditation on dislocation in the voice of a recently arrived, effectively indentured, immigrant, leads into ‘The Man Who Loved Beer’. Written for Lambchop’s How I Quit Smoking by (music) Kurt Wagner and (lyrics) a remarkably prescient unknown Egyptian, c.1990 B.C., the words could easily describe the Bush-Cheney junta: “To whom can I speak today?/The wrong which roams the earth/There can be no end to it/It is just unstoppable/And the violent man has come down on everyone”.

‘Empire’ makes a more unambiguous assault: “In democratic fever for national defence/Young artists and writers/Please heed the call/What’s good for business is good for us all”.

However, singling out the leftie hand-wringing misrepresents Grown Backwards. Mostly, the likes of ‘Tiny Apocalypse’, ‘Glad’ and ‘She Only Sleeps (With Me)’ are melodically limber skips through the intricacies of modern city life, generous and curious but detached enough to note the absurdities, step back and have a laugh. (‘Civilisation’, say, peers perplexed at the mating rituals we put ourselves through: “Just be yourself, well that’s what they say/But I barely knew who I was yesterday”.)

Maybe most memorable are the aforementioned excerpts from 19th century Romantic opera: Bizet’s aria, ‘Au Fond Du Temple Saint’, sung with Rufus Wainright, and Verdi’s ‘Un De Felice, Eterea’. Full marks for brass neck, and they hit the notes and pull them off. The latter ends the album on a note of understated serenity, Byrne in magnificent, mournful, moving voice.

Eclecticism often means dilettantism, and can camouflage the lack of anything at all to say. But a musician who can go all over the shop stylistically and yet stay centred, lucid and unmistakably himself is really on to something. The sense of adventure is invigorating, and Grown Backwards a triple espresso of an album.

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