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Published: 2004/03/30
by Jesse Jarnow

Grown Backwards – David Byrne

Nonesuch Records 79826-2

David Byrne's last proper solo album, 2001's Look Into the Eyeball,
featured strings on several tracks. Where they appeared, however, they
seemed like pop accoutrements — like musical smirks tacked onto the songs
later. They also emphasized that flawed album's high and low points. The
material was gorgeous and lush and realized in a creative and compelling way
(such as through the disc's arrangements), but there was also an
undercurrent of irony to the whole affair, a sense that Byrne was slightly
mocking the subjects of his songs. On Grown Backwards, Byrne works
hard at developing both of those themes by fixing those problems.

The strings are back. In fact, instead of being merely a tool of
arrangement, they make up the core of the disc's instrumentation. They are
schmaltz overdrive. But they never feel extraneous or even ironic. And
they're really nice to listen to! It's nice to get lost in the plucked
cellos and syrupy violins and whatnot. They seem like perfectly reasonable
and earnest parts of the material, precisely because Byrne is trying his
damndest to be sincere. Byrne has included personal liner note missives with
his music before (notably on two Talking Heads retrospectives, Sand in
the Vaseline and Once In A Lifetime), but only as a matter of
reflection, never as a way of explaining (however abstractly) the contents
of the discs.

Even if the songs aren’t sincere (and it's hard to take choruses like
"Ahoy! It's pirates on parade!" too seriously), they make a good show
at it, and that's all that really matters, right? Byrne speaks of his daily
routines, mentions the aftermaths of 9/11, and ends with a simple
one-sentence paragraph "During all this time, I dreamt." Turning the
fold-out liner notes over, one reads four vignettes describing (presumably)
these dreams (real or fictional). Simply by mentioning the war, Byrne is
making a move: he's making the album exist in the real, contemporary world
(as opposed to the sort of unspoken timeless space that most rock albums
reach for). And it's to his endless credit, then, that the disc's lyrics
(besides "Empire") contain no overt references to current events. For the
listener, they are a frame to interpret the music inside.

Like last year's haunting (mostly) instrumental score to Young Adam,
Grown Backwards finds Byrne moving away from the Latin influences
that have permeated almost all of his work since the final Talking Heads
album, 1988's Naked. It's a joy, and really a whole lot of fun. Byrne
tries his hand at two arias – one in French, one in Latin – and makes them
sound texturally and melodically seamless with the album (though it's
actually kinda hilarious if you pay too much attention to it). He also
offers a cover of Nashville indie collective Lambchop's "The Man Who Loved

So, who knows if this is actually a personal album or not? A friend of mine
was recently berating Byrne for faking natn his work — acting like an
innocent when, in truth, he's actually as cynical as (say) Lou Reed. But,
really, so what? It's a nice worldview, even if it's an adopted character or
a musical trick. "Skin that covers me from head to tie / Except a couple
tiny holes and openings / Where the city's blowin' in and out" he sings on
the opening "Glass, Concrete, & Stone." That's a nice image, I think, and a
good example of the kinds of observations Byrne is capable of making. The
use of the strings to bolster these kinds of lines is a fairly sophisticated
technique, investing them with a sort of a sadness (the opposite of the
happy music/sad lyrics of bluegrass, oddly) that, in turn, also suggests the
exact opposite of nathrough it's complexity. So there.

There's some filler on the disc, but there are also lots of surprises. With
its non-sequitur lyrics and pulsing groove, "Dialog Box" sounds like it
could have come off of Speaking In Tongues. Frequently, what first
seems like a genre exercise ("Tiny Apocalypse," for example, seems designed
to be a cutesy finger-snapper) actually yields pleasures. The album works
well in a dialogue with itself, as well as Byrne's career, and the world at
large. And even where Byrne sounds a little bit out of touch, he does so – well – sounding like an innocent, and that's very charming.

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