I wasn't exactly a pretentious 4-year-old; I wasn't hip to things like performance art, new age music, or critical theory. But I didn't know what "normal" was yet, either, and that's probably why I loved Laurie Anderson's Big Science. It's impossible to forget my parents playing the album late at night, right before I went to bed, how calm it made me—Anderson's vocoded voice, her sampled "ahs"—there was hardly anything there, but I remember my chest feeling very heavy, the same way it does when I hear the album today. Whatever was going on, Big Science made me fall in love with minimal music. And I didn't even know what minimal meant.
Originally released in 1982, Big Science was Laurie Anderson's great pop fluke. The album managed the feat of being so bizarre it snuck into mainstream consciousness by weird brute force. The "hit" single from the album, "O Superman," managed to reach number two in the UK music charts; stateside, it was considered more of a gee-whiz techno novelty. Still, the success must have been surprising for an artist like Anderson, who ran within New York's uncompromising avant-garde scene.
Listening to Big Science today, it's clear the album is both a product of its time and a total transcendence of that time. Anderson's experimentation with early sampling techniques on tracks like "O Superman"—using her own voice to create polyrhythm out of vocal ticks—had never been done before. Not to take away from any current avant-garde accomplishments (Björk's microphone bjurps?), it's funny to think Anderson had such radical experimentation beat by 20-odd years.
Aside from the innovative production tricks, Big Science's greatest asset is Anderson's storytelling. Songs like "From the Air" are filled with absurd spoken-word narratives—airplane pilots playing Simon Says with the crew during a crash landing, chin-scratching asides like "This is the time. And this is the record of the time" repeated as the plane goes down. Moments like this are never ironic; Anderson gives no winks to the audience. I remember thinking she sounded like a space-age version of my mom—never judging, always calm. Of course, back then, I didn't understand anything about the avant-garde... but I didn't need to. Big Science was and is a lullaby steeped in dream logic; the questions raised by the album never require answers or need explanations.
Big Science was reissued July 17 by Nonesuch Records.