Laurie Anderson Doesn't Have Any Answers

Her fantastic, deceptively cynical new record, Homeland, asks the questions anyway

"You know the reason I really love the stars?" asks Laurie Anderson, in the electronically treated, increasingly resigned baritone alter-ego voice she's taken to calling Fenway Bergamot. "Because we cannot hurt them." It's an extraordinary moment (within the nearly-12-minute, hilariously dour "Another Day in America") on an extraordinary album: Homeland, the iconic New Yorker's first new record in nearly a decade, is a tough, engrossing swirl of avant-garde electro-pop and sociopolitically exasperated spoken word, tracing the greed and desolation and gnawing confusion of this brave new American era. "Only an Expert," in particular, is a shockingly propulsive putative dance-floor smash, excoriating the so-called problem-solvers who have driven us to ruin via the War on Terror, the financial crisis, global warming, and on and on. She'll add verses as necessary; the BP oil spill is a likely candidate.

Back from a long stint in Australia curating a festival with husband (and, in a first for the couple, Homeland co-producer) Lou Reed, Anderson chatted about her volatile optimism, her alleged predictive powers, her favorite rapper, and that concert she recently played for dogs. Here are some excerpts.

Most of the material on Homeland has been around a while—or at least was born during the Bush era. Does it take on a new significance for you now, with a regime change here, with at least the possibility that things are different, and could get better? Are you feeling more optimistic?

"You get so distracted because there's lots of distractions."
Tim Knox
"You get so distracted because there's lots of distractions."

If you'd asked me a couple of weeks ago, I would have said yes. I'm kind of worried right at the moment, to tell you the sad truth.

Is that oil-spill-related?

Yeah, it is. I have to say, I have a bit of a paranoid streak, I suppose. And I'm not sure whether to be paranoid about this or not.

I ask because there are some pretty cynical moments on the record. "Another Day in America" is fairly brutal—the old couple who hated each other but waited to get divorced "until the children died"; the visions of "broken-up parking lots, rotten dumps, speedballs, Styrofoam, computer chips." Is our future really as bleak as you sometimes imagine it to be?

Well, those are some of the pictures. Those are maybe the bleaker ones of the group. Like I said, I took most of the really dark stuff out—that's the cheerful version. I'm an optimist, I think, overall. In that kind of jump-cut style, which is the Fenway Bergamot voice I'm looking for, it's really how your mind works rather than what you would say. Fortunately, we don't say everything that runs through our minds—that would be kind of chaotic.

Probably like most people, I'm not so dependent on, or I think I'm not so dependent on, my identity is not so dependent on where I think I live. But I think it did get a little bit shaken when we started torturing people. That really got to me. It really did. And I thought, "Well, come on, you don't have to be where you live." But in a certain way, you are, and there's a lot of pressure to make that identity sort of shift.

That administration, the Bush administration, was a very story-savvy one. They knew what they were doing when they paired a ridiculous word like "homeland," which nobody uses—no American would say "homeland"; it sounds like something from a small Balkan country, and you wouldn't say that. But they sandwiched it between two very bureaucratic words—Department of Homeland Security—to make it somehow appealing or whatever. And there are a lot of those tricks that go on all over the place, in terms of identity. So shifting identities is really important to me in this record. How do you do that, and how does that work? Everybody, not just people in public, have to pick an identity and stick with it. You have to kind of talk like you did yesterday. Why? Sometimes just listening to myself talk, I think, "If I have to hear another sentence, I'm gonna die—it's, like, awful." So we do have the option to find another voice, and for me as a writer, it's really important to do that, just 'cause I don't necessarily think I'm seeing things so clearly if I just always have to put it in my own words. There's plenty of ways to look at this. So that's the device of Fenway Bergamot.

What is the darker stuff that you left off?

There was a song called "Bad Guys." That was really dark!

I can picture it.

Yeah, right? I'm sure you've got it. Along those lines. War songs. But I'm always—when we've swung to the right, I'm always writing things that are more political, and when we swing back to the left, poetry comes back. This is kind of one on the cusp. It's got a little bit of everything.

It's incredible to me to watch footage of you performing "Expert" in 2007—I would have sworn it was written explicitly in response to the financial crisis. Did you feel like a prophet, like your song was somehow turning into real life?

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