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It’s liberating to know that David Byrne believes his lyrics and music trigger emotions in himself rather than the other way around—that he assembles meaning after the fact. Byrne says as much in the liner notes to Nonesuch’s 2006 reissue of 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, his last album with Brian Eno, and one of the more fruitfully influential art records ever made. Recorded against the flowering influence of early hip-hop and Fela, that disc’s percolating electronics, funk, and talk-radio samples remained unspoiled by singing from either Byrne or Eno, nudging the rock notion of authorship closer towards collage. But because Byrne’s Eno-produced albums with Talking Heads from that period have by now become so freighted with interpretation, it’s tempting to imagine him simply playing DJ to his subconscious as well: If you only half-knew what Remain in Light was about, maybe Byrne could say the same. Now he might well be serenading a mirror when he sings, “I see the music in your face/That your words cannot explain.”
Byrne and Eno describe the (so far) online-only Everything That Happens Will Happen Today as “electronic gospel,” and while it couldn’t sound more different than Ghosts—Byrne sings throughout, Eno provides pop wallpaper with ambient guitarist Leo Abrahams—you begin to hear a connection between the ranters impersonated on Remain in Light, the chopped-up preachers of Ghosts, and the meaning-of-life babble set to churchy changes here. (Byrne has also just issued a fine soundtrack for HBO’s polygamist-Mormon series Big Love.)
As with Talking Heads godchildren Stereolab, Byrne’s songs have always sounded like coping mechanisms for people who realize that radical consciousness just means more to worry about—nobody who extols optimism with so much feeling could have come by it naturally. But Everything That Happens is almost a parody of optimism: Party-packed with major chords, shopping-dome synths, and acoustic guitars, “Home” sounds like the Flaming Lips covering Woody Guthrie, until the singer casts a shadow over his irresistibly romantic line “Come back anytime and we’ll mix our lives together” with the suggestion that this home might be “broken.” Among the things that “happen today” in the daydreamy title track, an automobile explodes. And even the gently sermonizing line “Life is long when you give it away,” set to Byrne’s poppiest melody since Little Creatures, reads ambiguously—”long” could be heaven or hell, depending on whether the gift has been squandered.
The purest Rorschach is “I Feel My Stuff,” an atypically slinky slow-build of piano dots and loops, where only the climactic title chorus scans. Though it’s become a pop commonplace, Byrne’s singing was never exactly the first thing you loved about him—he so often has the high-pitched blankness of a sustained yawn. But he sounds lovely here, age bringing a surer and rawer tone along with more confidence in his question mark.