The background noise of everyday American life may not be the actual subject of David Byrne and St. Vincent's new full-length, Love This Giant, but the music seems a little stressed out. The songs ride on a sturdy backdrop of minimalist funk decorated with horns that don't suggest anything as expansive as jazz. It's a pop record full of subtle ironies — Byrne's voice communicates the mania and neurosis he made famous as leader of Talking Heads, and the record lays out Byrne's old themes in a way that suggests real unease. Both ingrown and outgoing, Love This Giant is as confounding a mixture of the populist and the arty as you're likely to hear this year.
Love This Giant came about as the result of a performance St. Vincent — whose real name is Annie Clark — and Byrne gave in New York for a nonprofit organization called Housing Works, who had already hosted shows pairing such pop musicians as Björk and Dirty Projectors. As well, Byrne was a fan of Clark's work, having attended her New York shows. Clark had the idea to bring a brass ensemble to Housing Work's small space, and the resulting collaboration is notable for its combination of brass, electric guitars and John Congleton's beats.
The record is nothing if not valiantly syncretic — the opening track, "Who," lopes along in a semi-reggae manner even as it skews pop song form. "Who'll share this taxicab / Who wants to climb aboard," Byrne sings. The combination of horns, guitars and funk drumming is effective, the horns adding a slightly sardonic tone to the track.
"Weekend in the Dust" and "Ice Age" showcase Clark's unsentimental vocals, with "Ice Age" featuring an off-kilter chorus with a Brian Wilson-like melody. As they do throughout the record, the horns play decorative lines. "Ice Age" seems to be about aspiration — the energy required to navigate the world of crisscrossing self-interest that Love This Giant appears to document.
In the same vein, "Dinner for Two" opens with mock-snooty horns that give way to drums and handclaps. "I ask myself what is going on," Byrne sings. "Dinner for Two" seems to be set in an upper-middle-class milieu that militates against intimacy. Here, the combination of droll riffs and funk rhythms is completely effective — if it's basically '80s pop updated with horn arrangements, it's well done.
Byrne and Clark duet on "Lazarus," another tale of thwarted American aspiration. The horn arrangements add a self-mocking sobriety to the track, while Clark harmonizes with herself. "Cool water," she repeats, and Byrne bemoans his fate: "High on a hill, I'm working all the time." Much like his songwriting on Talking Heads' More Songs About Buildings and Food and Remain in Light, "Lazarus" reshuffles American archetypes with deadpan assurance.
The horns add warmth to "Optimist," a tale of self-invention that begins with calm, deep chords. "How it is is how it ought to be," Clark sings, while the horns echo the sentiment. She sounds calm, centered and ultimately quite successful on "Optimist" — it's one of the record's most compelling moments.
Love This Giant's centerpiece may be "I Should Watch TV," which finds Byrne singing about the joys of being an average American. "Wanted to know what folks were thinking / To understand the land I live in," he sings. "And I would lose myself, and it would set me free." The horn arrangement opens up the tune, which is built upon a spare, nervous funk rhythm.
Still, it's hard to grasp the tone of "I Should Watch TV," even though television itself is a surefire symbol of ultimate banality. "I heard the jokes from the sports reporter / About our teams when they faced each other / The more I lost myself, the more it set me free," Byrne sings. Like much of Love This Giant, the song is about connecting with an American culture that seems fatally disconnected from its own best impulses.
Throughout Love This Giant, the horn arrangements either undercut the idea of struggle that Byrne and St. Vincent seem intent on exploring, or the polyphonic nature of the arrangements make a powerful argument for pluralism — not to mention a return to older American values, such as horn sections themselves — which the artists believe is essential to our health as a nation. It's that kind of vexing, problematic record. Byrne and St. Vincent have said the horns and the electronics operate in two different spheres on Love This Giant, with the contrast being essential to the overall effect.
You can hear that contrast, but I think the horns add a starchy but oddly lovable note of constraint, and that may be the point. Love This Giant could be read as a document of struggle against apathy and mindlessness. If the horns, voices and drums that compose the record don't always seem to be working together in conventional ways, they often add up to a whole that remains a bit mysterious — and that may be plenty for pop musicians to achieve, at this late date.