Though separated by several decades, the music of David Byrne and Annie Erin Clark (hereafter referred to by her stage name, St. Vincent) shares a special quality not often seen in popular music. Both musicians don’t just write songs that will be popular with the casual listener—though they do this as well—but they write music first and foremost for: musicians and serious music fans. When you compare a song like David Byrne’s “Independence Day” (1989) to other popular music of the same year (“Love-Shack” by the B-52’s, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison, “Look Away” by Chicago … yeah, no wonder radio is a wasteland), you’ll find a marked upturn in both lyrical and musical complexity. David Byrne writes songs that are at once pleasing and fascinating to listen to, with layered intricate harmonies and beautiful lyrics.
St. Vincent is a comparatively new addition to the music scene, but her output to date has shown the mark of true greatness. Under the guise of your average indie singer/songwriter, she has created some of the most original and interesting music of the past five years. Listen to “The Apocalypse Song” from her first album, Marry Me (a playful reference to Arrested Development, one of the greatest comedies of all time). It starts with a slow drumbeat, and over the course of only the first minute, it builds into a beautifully chaotic masterpiece of nearly discordant harmonies, made coherent by the leading power of St. Vincent’s voice and the haunting quality of her lyrics.
It might make for better listening to know that David Byrne and St. Vincent decided to collaborate professionally only after a few friendly encounters and emails passed back and forth. This easy, care-free partnership is heard throughout the album, as you notice both musicians leaving their comfort zones on multiple occasions, something which probably wouldn’t have happened in a less friendly working relationship. (Listen to St. Vincent laying down the funk on “Weekend in the Dust” for an example.)
David Byrne’s past couple of albums, while very listenable and not bad at all, have been critiqued by many for unoriginality. An artist who’s constantly challenged the traditions of music and created his own rules, Byrne appeared to be taking it easy for a few years, making enjoyable but empty albums such as his second collaboration with Brian Eno, Everything that Happens Will Happen Today (2008). Although it’s a jubilant and very fun album, it’s decidedly cemented in the “pop rock” genre. Compared to the duo’s first collaboration, the funky, insanely sample-heavy My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981), an album still cited as one of the most influential experimental albums ever made, Everything that Happens looks more like a Good Charlotte reunion tour.
Love This Giant, however, seems to have changed all that. The music on the album is incredibly original, and Byrne’s voice as he sings “I Should Watch TV” almost sounds as though he’s having trouble containing his excitement at the prospect of this new-found creative flow. Right from the opening track, “Who,” you can tell you’re in for something special. Let me quickly break down the first few seconds of this amazing song.
It opens with a simple riff for horns, which have recently become the go-to gimmick for any pop star who wants to prove themselves as a “serious musician.” But wait a minute, it sounds like whoever’s writing this horn part actually knows what they’re doing! The drums and St. Vincent’s signature guitar come in on the DOWN beat of the horn riff, an incredibly uncommon occurrence in modern pop music; the instruments are playing pretty fast and coming down hard on each beat, like a punch in the gut. And then the singing starts. Byrne’s voice comes through clear and crisp, and suddenly the back-up singing (Byrne and Vincent) comes in, nothing but a sharp, rhythmic grunt, like a literal punch in the gut. St. Vincent’s playful voice inhabits the chorus, singing a short melodic line before we fall back into the infectious rhythmic horn riff that interlaces the song.
… And then we’re off. The album doesn’t give you a chance to breathe for several more songs. It’s best to just sit back and let the music take you where it’s going. If you jumped out of a roller-coaster halfway through, I imagine you’d feel somewhat unfulfilled, and also more than a little bit rattled. Same principle applies to a great album. You’ve got to see it through the end (and the final track is actually my favorite on the album, the fantastic build-up song “Outside of Space and Time”).
Another of my personal favorites is “I Should Watch TV,” again featuring Byrne on main vocals. There are two key moments that made me fall in love with this song, both of them being a perfect combination of lyrics and music. The first is Byrne singing in a sudden, fast-paced chorus: “Everybody gets a touched up hairdo! Everybody’s in the passing lane!” An obvious reference to the vain instant gratification society we’ve built up worldwide. The second moment comes in the next half of the song when the music suddenly comes to a near halt, and Byrne sings in an almost prophetic tone: “How am I not your brother? How are you not like me?” An old sentiment, sure, but the moment had an impact on me all the same.
In summation, David Byrne and St. Vincent’s Love this Giant is a jubilant, funky, and entirely stand-alone pop album, with no music produced over the past decade even a little bit similar, and with only a few select albums on par with it in terms of shear musical prowess. Check it out, seriously.
And don’t forget to download the Brass Tactics EP, a free follow-up to Love This Giant.
RIYL: David Byrne, St. Vincent; not much else, is there…