Thinking About How We Think
Since the 2016 United States’ presidential election, politically charged albums have not been rare. While American Utopia might seem like another of the bunch based on the title, this album is something different altogether. David Byrne never explicitly sings about the presidency or current state of the nation. Rather, the album is an exploration of how we see the world and the questions we have about how things are. The album’s title is not meant to be sarcastic or ironic, but thought-provoking.
Most probably know Byrne as the frontman of the ‘70s and ‘80s new wave/rock band Talking Heads. Although the band’s career officially ended in 1991, Byrne’s solo career includes an impressive discography of solo and collaborative albums including 2012s Love This Giant with St. Vincent. American Utopia stands out among the crowd by featuring a plethora of artists and collaborators including Brian Eno and producer Rodaidh McDonald (Adele, King Krule, The xx). Born from this sea of influencers, American Utopia is nothing short of exciting and memorable.
The first track, “I Dance Like This,” begins with a simple piano melody before an electronic, techno beat jumps in during the chorus and Byrne clearly states, “I dance like this because it feels so damn good / We dance like this because it feels so damn good,” before the piano tune resumes during the following verse. The rest of the album follows suit in its eccentricity. “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” features a disco-infused dance beat with interludes of harmonica. “It’s Not Dark Up Here” offers a tropical/rock fusion beat with snarling vocals. The album ends with “Here” which shows off a more solemn, haunting tune with gentle percussion throughout.
Byrne is quirky and whimsical in his lyrics — matching the joy of the music. Despite the occasional silly nature, these lyrics portray serious themes of the album. In “Every Day Is A Miracle,” Byrne challenges the way that humans think about life by imagining the perspective of other species. “Now the chicken imagines a heaven / Full of roosters and plenty of corn / And God is a very old rooster / And eggs are like Jesus, his son.” He continues to explain how a “Cockroach might eat Mona Lisa” and “The pope don’t mean sh*t to a dog,” questioning the things that humans value and worry about.
Byrne’s nominal reference to an “American Utopia” is not necessarily the world that we live in, nor its antithesis, but one that mirrors certain aspects of our world if we viewed it in a different way. His optimism for the nation shows in this album by dismissing some of the minute disparities and pointing to the positives. The joy that Byrne highlights is emphasized by the playful style of music and lyricism used in the album. American Utopia is not only the musical brainchild of 25 collaborators, but born from Byrne’s analytical, forward-thinking point of view.