Here Lies Love, conceived and composed by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, features 23 vocalists, 21 of whom are female, and one of whom is David Byrne. (The other dude is Steve Earle.) It narrates, in that usual patchy and nebulous rock-opera way, the childhood, upbringing, ambition, and political career of Imelda Marcos, first lady of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. Imelda’s husband, Ferdinand Marcos, declared martial law in 1972 and didn’t relinquish it until 1981, five years before his deposition by the nonviolent People Power Revolution, best remembered by most Americans for its discovery that Ms. Marcos had, in her flight with her husband from the besieged palace, left behind 3,000 pairs of shoes.
The two-CD set doesn’t dramatize all this. What it does, when it’s good, is compassionately illuminate bits and pieces of a life and personality characterized, allegedly, by a goodhearted but worrisome brand of nationalist messianism: “I’m a simple country girl who had a dream.” It’s also exactly the sort of thing you’d expect David Byrne to do in 2010, which is to say it’s ambitious and curious and socially responsible and vaguely annoying. Since the dissolution of Talking Heads, being a Byrne fan has felt like forcing yourself to admire the décor in a series of smaller and smaller rooms. He’s an extremely bright and engaging guy who, left alone, tends to dwindle away within mild, arch art songs; collaborating with Brian Eno for 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, he was more expansive and adventurous than he’d been in decades.
Fatboy Slim helps open Byrne up here, bolstering his stagy, flowery songwriting with drum machines and effects pedals and drunken disco strings, although this isn’t quite the Studio 54 album that’s been advertised. And that musty feeling never quite vanishes. It seems strange to look at an album with 23 singers and complain of a paucity of variety, but Here Lies Love slides from Florence Welch to St. Vincent to Tori Amos to Martha Wainwright to Nellie McKay, and though they all do fine, you wish Byrne had exercised his power as an un-turn-downable Great American Artist and corralled, like, Miley Cyrus or Erykah Badu or Debbie Harry to break up the monolithic program of quietly quirky indie-girls.
The standouts do deviate a little: the squelchy “Eleven Days” (laden with chintzy wah-wah and handed over to Cyndi Lauper), or “Dancing Together” (which Sharon Jones inflates into swaying, tottering faux-soul), or “A Perfect Hand,” (wherein Steve Earle stands out sort of unfairly, just by being the only other guy). The Earle track narrates the couple’s political rise, Imelda campaigning for her husband with breathtaking energy and the sociopathy of a born politician (“If you open the door for a lady/You open the door for yourself”), and it blends well with the idea that she saw herself as synecdoche for her country, the kind of gleaming good intention that hardens into what’s-good-for-me-is-good-for-everyone. But it also makes pervasive use of a hokey playing-card metaphor and dropped-G singing style that’s unmistakably American (“Who’s holdin’ aces/Who’s gonna fold,” etc.), which is, of course, how Steve Earle sings everything. It injects the song with all kinds of shadows of ideas about America and the American politicization of down-and-out, and the parallels between Imelda-Marcos-as-simple-country-girl and, say, the way American politicians seem to spend a lot of time competing to see whose father had the most demeaning job.
Here Lies Love isn’t always this fertile. But the adrift moments are justified by the good ones: Martha Wainwright swaying primly to “The Rose of Tacloban,” Natalie Merchant announcing martial law on “Order 1081,” or Byrne himself popping in for the near-totally-irrelevant and dorky “American Troglodyte.” There are precise and careful images to be found (“It’s amazing how the soldiers all know how to dance/It’s amazing how the soldiers keep the creases in the pants”). And to its earnest, studious, compassionate, occasionally dull credit, it never once mentions shoes.