Here Lies Love

David Byrne & Fatboy Slim—Here Lies Love
Nonesuch

Reviewed by Hugh Lilly

Former Talking Heads front man David Byrne is a master collaborator: his work with Brian Eno—most recently 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today—has been continually inventive, and “Knotty Pine,” his contribution (with Dirty Projectors) to last year’s Red Hot aids-awareness compilation, Dark Was the Night, was one of the highlights of that album. Unfortunately, his new concept albuma song cycle about Imelda Marcos—is lyrically, musically, and conceptually abysmal. It’s a collaboration with Norman Cook (a.k.a. Fatboy Slim), though his presence is so faint that if his name hadn’t appeared in the credits, it would be impossible to tell he was anywhere near the project.

Like a character out of Sex and the City, Marcos—the widow of the corrupt, kleptocratic former President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos—was known mostly for her collection of expensive shoes (reportedly some 3,000 pairs) and her extravagant club-hopping lifestyle. Following an idea of exposing “the theatricality of the bubble worlds of the rich and powerful,” Byrne aimed to tell Marcos’ life story alongside the “tragic” tale of the woman who raised her as a child, Estrella Cumpas—subject matter that is fairly esoteric, to say the least. It could have been interesting, but the resulting project is little more than a jammed-together collection of disco-pop songs: musically it is incoherent, and lyrically it is a complete mess.

After completing the lyrics, which involved more than a year’s worth of research, Byrne set about assembling a roster of (mostly female) guest artists that includes Sharon Jones, Florence Welch, Tori Amos, Martha Wainwright and Róisín Murphy. Mostly in disco and proto-house styles, the songs range from the “meh, this is OK”-ness of “When She Passed By,” which features Allison Moorer, to the “kill-me-now-this-is-painful”-ness of “Eleven Days,” which employs the grating vocal talents of Cindi Lauper, whose nasal, one-hit-wonder voice has always been unpleasant.

Someone called Charmaine Clamor—an L.A.-based Filipina jazz singer, and therefore the only vocalist with even a tenuous connection to the subject matter at hand—appears on a track called “Walk Like a Woman,” which sounds revoltingly like something that Annie Crummer would have rejected while making one of her albums in the early ’90s. Byrne somehow cajoled country music singer Steve Earle into singing “A Perfect Hand,” whose lyrics include the Kenny-Rogers-like phrases “Who’s holding aces? / And who’s gonna fold and / Who’s got a secret? / And who’s feeling bold?”

The album’s bright spots are few and far between, and exist only by virtue of the featured singers: Natalie Merchant, Sia, Nicole Atkins and Santigold render awful lyrics bearable, and even Byrne’s own presence near the end—on “Seven Years,” a duet with Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond—feels welcome after the indecent aural assault committed in preceding tracks. The show has twice been performed live—in Australia in 2006 and at Carnegie Hall in 2007—and, as the liner notes reveal, the ‘minimal,’ disco-like staging was designed to be toured around clubs and set up in “less than a day.” Byrne asks “Could one, as if by osmosis, absorb an emotional story—a narrative even—in the course of a night out dancing?” Well, yes, that would be pretty great, but it’s a tall order—especially in the form of a musical!

With such grand intentions and a roster of superlative talent at his disposal, it’s incredibly disappointing that Byrne’s project wound up being so gratingly unlistenable. It doesn’t work on disc, and it’s hard to see any of these songs working on the stage. Here Lies Love is the musical equivalent of an horrific slow-motion train crash painfully stretched out to 90 minutes.

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