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Published: 2001/06/19
by Jesse Jarnow

Look Into the Eyeball- David Byrne

"Look Into The Eyeball" – David Byrne

Virgin Records/Luaka Bop 7243 8 50924 2 8

The lyrics to the Reverend Al Green's Take Me To The River – a staple
in David Byrne's live sets as both a solo musician and member of Talking
Heads – equates religion, music, and sex in a mysterious way, combining – without judgment – into a strange story about a loss of innocence. Though
it's not on the album, Take Me To The River provides a keynote for
Byrne's latest outing, the first since 1997's "Feelings". Nearly every song
on "Look Into The Eyeball" contains some reference to one of the three
topics, usually in some kind of conjunction with the others.

The charm of Green's song is that it reaches no moral standpoint. Through
its particular lyrical bent and musical self-referentiality, "Look Into The
Eyeball" consistently comes off as smarmy, ironic, and superior – usually to
the work's ultimate detriment – seemingly promising a corruption of the
human spirit no matter which road it takes. It's a fine, if gloomy, message
to deliver. It's just that the delivery is so damn smug, like the singer is
laying insult to the songs' subjects. Simultaneously, the music is catchy
and, on certain listens, quite enjoyable.

UB Jesus, the album's opener, challenges the assertions of
Christianity and organized religion in favor of something homespun and
potentially more meaningful — an old Byrne theme. "Don't need a book to put
your hand in the fire," he chants in the chorus. All things told, the song's
criticisms of religion are unironic and pretty dang straightforward. The
implication is that there is something better out there, that the true power
of religion doesn't come with the Bible or other organizing documents, but
in the natural forces of passion. Quickly, though, the songs point
downwards: there is no salvation, in music or anything else.

Employing a number of different arrangers (including Thom Bell, Greg Cohen,
Tony Finno, and Jacques Morlenbaum), Byrne works within the boundaries of
lush string-pop. He is aware of what is he is doing. By using the culturally
inauthentic molds of commercial music, it is a comment on the ridiculousness
of arguments about authenticity of form — another theme Byrne is
well-acquainted with through his world beat extravaganzas. Unfortunately, it
rarely feels as if Byrne actually cares for the schmaltzy pop grooves in the
way he obviously does in his earlier works where he has tried similar
experiments (Dream Operator on "True Stories" [1986], for example).

Byrne betrays this throughout in his lyrics. The references to musical
styles seem mocking. "Will you be my disco dancer?" Byrne sings at the
beginning of Moment of Conception. In several songs – notably the
Revolution, the Great Intoxication and Walk On Water – Byrne
questions the power of music to cause change. In the Great
Intoxication, Byrne catalogues a list of genres before singing of a
character's unnamed boyfriend: "Who rocks out? / Who's spaced out? / Who
brings you? / Who sings you? / Who's still workin' on his masterpiece?" Such
begins the derision of rock and roll — a dangerous thing for a rock album
to do if it wants the listener to connect to it emotionally.

In a less established artist, this might be taken as a sign of a lack of
self confidence. With Byrne, one can only assume that he intends it to add
up to the exact opposite. "Funky" is one of the most overused words in
vocabularies related to music. In theory, roughly translated, it is supposed
to mean some kind of genuine attitude. Instead, it has come to mean the
appearance of such attitude. Byrne uses the word and others like it to poke
fun at anybody who claims to be legitimate. "Step inside this funky house,"
he intones in the chorus of Like Humans Do, the LP's first single.

But no one can be legit. No one is good enough. "He can walk on water,"
Byrne sings of a prophet in Walk On Water, "but he can't stop fallin'
in." Later: "He's got amplifiers, microphones / Record players, God only
knows / All the girls say, 'Shut up and gimmie the groove'". The song – the
second to last on the album – frustratingly completes the arc begun by UB
Jesus. To his credit, I suppose, the music on "Look Into The Eyeball"
matches up with the lyrical content perfectly through the use of ironically
sentimental melodies. It can make for annoying listening, however, not
because of the sheer cheesiness, but because of the constant
self-referentiality.

Byrne can still write wonderful melodies, though, and the songs tend to
linger in one's head for longer than one would care to admit. There are also
a pair of nearly perfect tunes. The Revolution which, if one were to
divorce it from the rest of the album, deals with all of the themes in an
utterly poignant, thoughtful, and non-judgmental way. The other, Broken
Things, leaves the rest of the album's themes behind and returns to
Byrne's early Talking Heads-era fascination with the poetry of small
matters.

With a return to that kind of wide-eyed innocence, one yearns to listen to
the rest of the album with the same attitude. And, though it's tough, the
songs begin to open up a little bit more. "Who's still working on his
masterpiece?" Byrne asks in the Great Intoxication. With references
to Jack Sallee's Heartbreaker in the bridge, the song becomes more
complex than base-level irony. It puts the song's character into some kind
of cultural moment. Yes, the line is probably as sarcastic as it seems, but
it might not be. Even cultural stereotypes can save one's life.

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