The strangest thing about listening to Look Into the Eyeball, David Byrne's recent CD, is how it is utterly familiar and new at the same time. Listening to the opening track, "U.B. Jesus," with its gospel testimony, recalls the Talking Heads' audacious cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River." Or on "Broken Things," a psycho-self-examination with an eerie vibe reminiscent of the band's first thesis statement, "Psycho Killer."
And then there are the musical explorations that have marked so much of Byrne's solo works, in this case his desire to find a melodic, sensual connection between string arrangements splashed against percussive rhythm sections. It's almost as if Byrne, who seems in a constant state of musical evolution, has made peace with his past, present and future. It's reflective in his live shows, which he says are one part Talking Heads material, one part his solo career leading up the new album, and one part material from the album itself which again, feels like its own amalgamation.
"I would say it took a few years before I could do material that had any similarity with work I did with Talking Heads," says Byrne over the phone from his hotel room in Los Angeles during a stop on his tour. "That part of my writing ... I just didn't want to deal with. But after a few years, I allowed that part to be a part of my writing. Some of the songs [on Look Into the Eyeball] have little elements that, uh, that are from that part of me, from other parts, and that makes a whole person.
"The songs are pretty diverse and eclectic," he continues. "My hope is that the string arrangements and the percussion give it a sense of unity, that it doesn't sound like a bunch of tracks thrown together. I was conscious that I was trying to write some kind of beautiful melodies that had a sensuality to them that would contrast with the percussive grooves with them. So it was very much trying to figure out what the strings would be doing. I wanted to provide plenty of space and replace guitars and keyboards."
There is a certain cohesion to the album, even it isn't readily apparent. The 48-year-old Byrne, as fearless a musical explorer as there has been in the past quarter-century, hop-scotches from gospel to electronic dance to Latin balladry to the Gamble-Huff-Philadelphia soul sound. He achieved this effect partly by providing his ensemble of some 30 studio musicians an "inspiration" mix CD of artists ranging from Tricky and Bjork to Stevie Wonder and Isaac Hayes and Caetano Veloso.
Best of all, Look Into the Eyeball grooves in a way that only a David Byrne or a Talking Heads album could in spite of its mix-and-match approach. Part of the credit goes to producer Michael Mangini, who Byrne tabbed after being impressed with his work on the Digable Planets' debut CD and the lesser-known Imani Coppola's CD.
"There was a mixture of loops and sample and real instruments, and I had a good sense of groove and rhythm, which is primary for me," Byrne recalls. "But most of all, when I met [Mangini] and played my demos, he was my harshest critic. As you can imagine, a lot of people will tell you, 'Dave, it's gonna be great!' I'm someone who likes to work; I don't wanna be patted on the back."
Throughout, Byrne explores the effects of relationships while adhering to what seems like a lifelong obsession with connecting people and objects. On "Broken Things," for example, the literal title are detritus in his house but ultimately serve as an examination of his own psyche; on "The Accident," a car wreck is the metaphor for a break-up: "TV crews arrive at the scene/ They say 'See the man who lost everything.'"
Seemingly to Byrne's surprise, the album is a winner with audiences and critics alike. Some critics are calling it his best solo work in years. Is David Byrne, the man Time magazine called in 1986 "Rock's Renaissance Man," suddenly hip again?
"It's been kind of incredible," he says almost sheepishly. "I don't know what it is, but it seems like people are likin' what I'm doin' again. (Laughs.) Which of course is really nice. It seems like maybe I turned some kind of corner. ... I think people are responding to the album. It's an album where I got more things right than I got wrong. Sometimes you don't always get it all right.
" I think the album's only part of it" he continues. " I think a lot of the people in the audience haven't heard [the album] yet. A lot of the members of the audience are young. It's not like all the Talking Heads fans come out."
The fans, it seems, have splintered off almost as much as the Talking Heads themselves after Byrne called it quits in 1992 -- amid much acrimony among the members. By the end, they had been hailed by many as America's greatest rock 'n' roll band of its era, starting out in the same New York punk underground that spawned everything from the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith and then filtering rock 'n' roll through a funky, performance-art lens. Their three successive albums produced by Brian Eno from 1978-80 -- More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music and Remain in Light -- are the rock version of a hat trick. Director Jonathan Demme captured that elusive essence with his landmark 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense. But as the '80s progressed, even Byrne admits to becoming a "dictator," and conflicting agendas led to a sort-of break-up. The husband-and-wife team of bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz focused on their side project, the even groovier Tom Tom Club, while keyboardist (and former Modern Lover) Jerry Harrison had a brief fling of success with his Casual Gods group. Byrne, of course, drew plenty of attention with his global musical excursions that included the Brazilian-fueled Rei Momo (before the band's demise) and led to his founding his own record label, the critically lauded Luaka Bop.
Byrne does not speak to his former bandmates, so even the notion of a reunion seems out of the question. But with Byrne continuing to evolve in such a steady fashion, perhaps that is as it should be. After all, as he keeps blending his many influences together -- even that of his landmark group -- what difference does it make?
Over the course of his solo career, Byrne has even dropped the cool ironic detachment that marked much of his career with the band (one critic even called him "the Typhoid Mary of the irony epidemic") that underscored the art-rock movement of the 1980s. Even as he was selecting the cover art for Look Into the Eyeball, Byrne admitted to wanting a less ironic stance, and his natural gray locks are but another example. The sincerity that permeates the songwriting on the album is the biggest one.
Byrne argues that he shed that skin a long time ago. "Once you get tagged with something, you're stuck with it for a while," he says. "In a world that's pretty insane, it's a survival mechanism. I don't feel like I need it as much as I used to."
When he is informed that his old friend Demme told The New York Times Magazine that he's never seen Byrne so "liberated," he at first seems a bit perplexed. "He said that?" Byrne asks. "I feel pretty comfortable doing what I'm doing. There's a certain amount of 'I don't care' in a good sense, 'I don't give a shit' in a good sense. My career has gone up and down, and I've been liked and not liked for various things. You can be not liked for something for several years, and then liked years later for the same thing. I'm not gonna take the reaction too seriously.
"And that really helps a lot, when you get to the point where ... as far as the critical world, or the world of what's cool at that moment, you don't care."
- 'I don't know what it is, but it seems like people are likin' what I'm doin' again,' David Byrne says to the reaction of his fourth solo album since leaving the Talking Heads.