If rock has a Renaissance man, it is David Byrne. An übergeek with a visionary streak, Byrne has spread his creative tentacles in numerous directions and disciplines, as both artist and mogul (with the rewardingly unpredictable Luaka Bop records, which helped to raise the profiles of Shuggie Otis and Os Mutantes, while also curating excellent comps of Brazilian, African, and Cuban music).
Besides fronting one of the greatest rock bands ever, Talking Heads (their first four albums are classics), Byrne has led a sporadically brilliant solo career. He's composed music for choreographer Twyla Tharp (The Catherine Wheel), theater director Robert Wilson (The Forest), the movie Young Adam (Lead Us Not into Temptation). He's directed and starred in the film True Stories; designed the set and choreographed movements for one of the greatest concert flicks of all time, Stop Making Sense; and conceived a sound-art installation called Playing the Building in a 99-year-old Manhattan ferry terminal. Nine bike racks around New York City bear his design aesthetic. Byrne has even appeared as himself in a Simpsons episode. There's more, and it gets odder.
In fact, a book could be written about Byrne's enduring contribution to modern culture (at least two already have been). But let's focus instead on the New York singer- songwriter-guitarist's collaborations with Brian Eno, another unconventional icon whose own brand of genius has accentuated Byrne's idiosyncratic impulses. Their fruitful teamwork fuels Byrne's upcoming tour, "Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno."
Following Eno's contributions to "I Zimbra" on 1979's Fear of Music (which he produced) and 1980's Afro-rock magnum opus Remain in Light (which he produced and to which he lent backing vocals and instrumentation), Eno and Byrne joined forces on 1981's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. A landmark work of sampledelia, it influenced the hiphop group Public Enemy's producers the Bomb Squad, among many others. Using voices plucked from the airwaves and vinyl as conveyors of messages and emotions as well as simply more layers of texture in their compositions, Byrne and Eno created both a new strain of dance music—call it "funk concrète"—and a chilling hybrid of ethnic music and ambient. Side two of the original LP, especially, hinted at a foreboding, novel direction for the mostly innocuous new-age genre.
Side one, by contrast, featured Byrne and Eno's fascination with rhythms usually associated with Africans and African-Americans. With its impassioned sermonizing about God from a black New Orleans preacher set to a swiftly percolating approximation of highlife, "Help Me Somebody" was a striking example of recontextualization. "Regiment" also provided friction with its spare, seductively funky bass and drums sparking off the sacred melisma of Lebanese mountain singer Dunya Yusin and Robert Fripp's serpentine guitar ululations. "The Jezebel Spirit" contained an exorcist in devil-extracting mode while mutant Afro disco bustled in the foreground. "America Is Waiting" built unbearable tension with its skewed funk beats and white-radio-talk-show chatterer spluttering about the exasperating state of things.
The difference between Bush of Ghosts and 2008's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is stark. The latter is a more traditional, structured collection of songs that will not inspire any future Bomb Squads. In broad terms, Everything That Happens is an Anglo-American pop album while Bush of Ghosts is a global experimental work. Anyone expecting the 1981 collab's innovations will be disappointed. Taken on its own terms as a mature display of songcraft by two of rock's craftiest songwriters, though, Everything That Happens is solid middlebrow entertainment, certainly more satisfying than most similar efforts from younger artists in the field (Eno, 60, composed the music; Byrne, 56, wrote the lyrics).
The aerial view of a suburban home on the Everything That Happens cover telegraphs the disc's domestic thrust. Byrne excels at finding existential meanings in mundane circumstances. In "Home," he sings, "Home will infect whatever you do/We're home—comes to life from outta the blue... We're home and the band keeps marchin' on/Connecting to ev'ry living soul/Compassion for things I'll never know."
With storehouses of great works behind them, Byrne and Eno have earned the right to scale back on the barrier-busting grind. It would be unreasonable to demand that they deliver the lofty creative edginess they achieved during their primes. Still, even if Everything That Happens suffers from Byrne's occasional lapses into sentimentality, it does possess a few pieces that can rightfully enter the twosome's pantheon. "Strange Overtones" harks back to the casual, swaying funk of Eno's "No One Receiving," but it features a more uplifting chorus, a less morose aura, and a Robert Wyatt frame-drum solo. "One Fine Day" is a stately ballad that echoes Eno's faux-gospel paeans on Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy). Album closer "The Lighthouse" dreamily drifts toward the vanishing point, ambiguously floating between resignation and hope.
In the liners, Byrne writes, "Where does the [disc's] sanguine and heartening tone come from, particularly in these troubled times? Some of my lyrics and melodies were a response to what I sensed lay buried in the music. My task was to bring forth into language what was originally nonverbal." Byrne made it happen, as usual.