Laurie Anderson has made an awe-inspiring mountain of music across her 40-year career as an experimental, trailblazing artist. You can attach multiple creative practices to her name, but her most well-known song—thanks to radio play from famed BBC DJ John Peel and an unexpected gen-z resurgence that landed her on the TikTok Billboard Top 50—is “O Superman.”

If you scroll, you’ve heard the sample of Anderson’s track; she modulates her voice to an eerie, disembodied being, flatly singing: “Well you don’t know me / but I know you.” She’s questioning justice, safety, power, and technology, but while “O Superman” conceptually floats somewhere in outer space, much of Anderson’s catalog is grounded, warm, and passionate.

Later this month, Anderson is set to perform in town as part of her Let X=X tour and alongside the NYC jazz ensemble Sexmob. The show is set to be a multimedia performance, showcasing her multi-hyphenate status while breathing new life into her extensive catalog.

If you’re new to Anderson, or just looking for a refresh, join us on this crash course primer of songs to add to your queue that aren’t “O Superman.” 

“Let X=X” (1982)

In the musical tradition of iconic opening lines, “Let X=X” has to be my favorite. “I met this guy and he looked like he might have been a hat check clerk at an ice rink,” she ponders. “Which, in fact, he turned out to be.” It’s a line that has lived in my mind since I first heard it at the age of seventeen.

Flipping through a discount bin of records, I looked for albums by female musicians that were priced cheap enough to buy with babysitting money. I went home with a copy of Anderson’s debut, Big Science, hoping that it would sound something like Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science.” And thank god I was wrong about that. 

Like the aforementioned “O Superman,” the song is mesmerizing, playful, and mysterious. It showcases Anderson’s unique word pacing and her signature blend of electronics and classical instruments, foreshadowing what’s to come of her prolific career.

To me, the song has always signified a Beatlesque “Let It Be” type mentality. As if she’s saying, let there be unknowns. Don’t try to solve it. Let X=X. And, with a line like “Your eyes, it’s a days work, just looking into them” there is a sense of playful passion and desire. What does it feel like to be deeply infatuated with another? “I feel like I’m in a burning building” she coos. “And I’ve got to go.” 

“Gravity’s Angel” (1984)

The resonant percussion in this song can only be described as “icy”—like clanking icicles. Contrasting with the spoken word poetry that she’s known for, “Gravity's Angel” begins with Anderson singing in an ethereal falsetto, listing off the positive traits of a lover (presumably the album’s namesake, Mister Heartbreak). “You can dance / You can make me laugh / You've got x-ray eyes…” she goes on. “But I've got one thing,” she offers. “I loved you better.”

The song isn’t a simple ode to a lost love, but a seething breakup speech. She recounts seeing an angel who gives her some advice (“The higher you fly, the faster you fall,” he says) followed by some classic post-breakup realizations (“Well he was an ugly guy with an ugly face”). The next verse features one of my favorite Laurieisms: “Even God got sad just looking at him / And at his funeral all his friends stood around looking sad / But they were really thinking of all the ham and cheese sandwiches in the next room.” The ultimate insult, if you ask me. 

“Babydoll” (1989)

Have you ever been “sitting around trying to write a letter” and racking your brain trying to think of “another word for horse?” This one is for you.

I first listened to this song because of its title—I love songs with lyrics about dolls. Spoiler alert: This song is not about dolls, but an ode to writer's block—something I can relate to. At first listen, I must admit that this song made me feel embarrassed. The instrumentation is gaudy, cheesy, and sort of sounds like the jingle for an ‘80s cruise ship commercial. But, that is its charm. Trust me, this song is so uncool that it’s the coolest song to ever exist.

Lyrically, the song follows a woman’s love affair with her own mind. “I don't know about your brain but mine is really…bossy” she confesses. Using he/him pronouns throughout the song, she describes her mind as a confrontational man who calls her the name “babydoll,” begging her to take him to the movies, a baseball game, or anything that’s not work.

“Poison” (1994)

“Poison” is perhaps Anderson’s eeriest, darkest song. One that could fit in effortlessly on Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats or Suicide’s 1977 self-titled album. It’s a raw, searing portrait of revenge filled with despair, loneliness, and paranoia.

The song recounts an argument where her lover shuts off the lights and goes downstairs to live with a different woman. “Yeah just one floor and a shout away,” her voice echoes. “I guess I should have moved, but I decided to stay.” She plays the role of a scorned lover, living like a pest in her ex’s attic—letting in cold and playing “loud organ music” to seek revenge. “I talk to myself and dream of you…Uh oh!” she sings with Patti Smith-esque punk pacing. She listens to their voices, she hears them playing records, moving furniture, and “fooling around.” 

She questions her sanity, asking herself “Did I drink some poison?” Or “Do something in another lifetime that was really really mean?” Asking once more “Is there blood on my hands?” The story ends with a chilling, unresolved mantra that seemingly recalls one of her earliest recorded songs, “A small bullet / A piece of glass / And your heart / Just grows / Around it.”

"Thinking Of You" (2010)

Before we knew Laurie Anderson for her pioneering electronic music, she played violin with the Chicago Youth Symphony. While she continues to use electronic violin in her music, 2010’s “Thinking Of You” is one of her most traditional classical pieces to precede her work with the Kronos Quartet on Landfall (2018). “Thinking of You” is a glittering, frosty meditation on transformation that could easily fit on a mixtape with Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow Is Falling,” John Cale’s “Paris 1919,” and other introvert yuletide classics. 

Staccato bow strokes descend like snowflakes as Anderson sets the scene: “Snow flies around / Surrounds my town / It knocks us down / It's falling on the circus / Falling on my little hometown.” In her world, the snowfall is chaotic, beautiful, and transformative. 

As the storm begins to settle, there are moments of gratitude for her baby, life, and body, as well as her “power and fear and strife.” The strings slowly fade. “I was thinking of you” Anderson repeats. “And then I wasn't thinking of you anymore.” The snow melts.

Bonus: “Call on Me” - Lou Reed feat. Laurie Anderson (2003)

Lou and Laurie collaborated on many songs during their 20-plus year relationship, including co-producing, co-writing, and playing on tracks like “One Beautiful Evening,” “My Right Eye,” “Only an Expert,” “Rouge,” “Rock Minuet,” and “Hang On to Your Emotions.” However, there are only a handful of songs in which they sing together: Anderson’s “In Our Sleep,” the unreleased “Gentle Breeze,” and Reed’s “Call on Me.” 

“Call on Me” is a gentle, acoustic duet containing some of Reed’s most transcendent lyrics: “Caught in the crossbow of ideas and journeys / Sit here reliving the other self's mournings / Caught in the crossbow of ideas and dawnings / Stand I.” His voice quivers and shakes with the utmost sincerity. 

Anderson’s voice comes in with her signature crystalline spoken word style: “A wild being from birth / My spirit spurns control / Wandering the wide earth / Searching for my soul / Dimly peering / I would surely find / What could there be more purely bright/ In truth's day-star.” 

The song closes with some of Anderson’s most stunning vocals, repeating the chorus acapella-style as if she’s singing directly to Reed. “Why didn’t you call on me?” she asks, as if to acknowledge the self’s tendency to suffer in isolation, unaware that there is someone nearby wanting to lend a hand. 

PDX Jazz Presents: Laurie Anderson at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St, Sat March 31, 8 pm, $59.75-$100, all ages.