David Byrne

Grown Backwards

(Nonesuch; 2004)

By Dom Sinacola | 27 July 2004

David Byrne is 52, and that’s pretty old.

Fettered by the stigma of general boredom an older artist usually gets in response to his or her most recent releases (well, that, or blind devotion, based solely on their “better days”), Mr. Byrne seems determined to confront his lengthening career head-on, slapping Youth in the ass and telling it to dance. If David Bowie can still manage to get pelted in the eye with a lollipop, survive heart surgery, churn out an album per year, and still make it home to rock his supermodel wife’s world, then David Byrne can surely wear overalls on his cover and make Youth--musically speaking, of course--his bitch.

On Grown Backwards, Byrne’s most recent solo effort after the soundtrack Lead Us Not Into Temptation (2003), there is a spirited appeal to what can only be described as the work of a man whose future seems indelibly mired in the esoteric diddlings of the past. Whereas the soundtrack mostly maintained a pastoral noir, Backwards jumps through style after style in tradition with a more familiar Byrnesian oeuvre; both solo and with the Heads, Byrne has proven himself as a maverick of mood and eclecticism. With the possible exception of his work with Brian Eno, Backwards is his most technically honed album to date. This is the stuff of an artist refreshingly confident with his work.

And hey, there he is front and center on the album’s cover! His willingness to paste his predictably boyish face all over the reflective surface of Backwards’ packaging is a meditation on the rigors of time in and of itself. He dresses and poses like an awkward toddler, exploring the bounds of the jail cell that is the human body. His music is still very much fodder for the visceral, but the giant, boxy suit has receded thirty years into the past.

Granted, this is a slickly produced piece of work, but the mixing keeps Byrne from competing with his arrangements. His lyrics, often simple or goofy but never shallow, are lifted from cynical quagmires by countless delicious moments. The percussion that begins the album on “Glass, Concrete & Stone” details a current breakup with the playful musings of a man unapologetic about his mid-life crisis. “The Man Who Loved Beer,” a Nashville serenade under the song’s author, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, becomes livelier in Byrne’s hands, emphasizing his impending dance with death through the deftness of zigzagging strings. “Au Fond du Temple Saint,” a duet with Rufus Wainwright, handles the story of an abandoned promise. Byrne’s rendition of this song from Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers stays melodically honeyed while stinging with the sadness of age. He never oversteps his vocal limitations, instead utilizing Wainwright’s unique timbre to strengthen his already fascinating sound.

Backwards does begin to lose its pace with its fourth track, the nationalistic ballad “Empire.” One can assume Byrne is toying with patriotic and imperialist parody, but the layers of strings and organs slip too much into adult-contemporary, Bacharach territory to connote the snark Dave might be attempting. Regardless, it’s a dud. No other song comes quite so close to the lows in “Empire,” but repetition and sheer volume yank at the seams of an otherwise concise and thematically compelling album.

“She Only Sleeps” is a hilarious defense of monogamy in a professional sex worker’s life. Byrne lankily creeps around the canned beats and finger snaps with phenomenal aplomb. “Tiny Apocalypse” and “Why” cover similar ground, relishing in their lounge lizard bounciness. “Dialog Box” imagines Byrne gyrating on stage; he glimmers and lusts like a surprisingly funky Elvis. “Lazy,” hands-down the best track on the album (“Temple Saint,” although remarkable, is marred by hints of novelty), sex-ifies the end of Backwards. Here are the Bee Gees with maracas and glow sticks.

This is an impressive album, one that merits no discussion of Byrne’s seminal past. Older and wiser (and damn he looks good with that silvery hair!), David Byrne is openly diddling with the ambiguous facets of being grown. He seems resigned to viewing his past as a mess of mundane, inconclusive moments, experiences that could have shaped his present condition, could have added up to a sound life, but most likely did nothing of the sort. He succeeds in letting the moments speak for themselves, translating their brazenness, sleaziness, despair, and inexplicable joy with a curious, boisterous grasp. Youth may be on its knees for Byrne, wrangled into manageable observation, but Grown Backwards is a refusal to place a value on time.

Meanwhile, David Byrne sleeps soundly in his jail cell on death row, cuddling against Youth, attempting to understand and sympathize with this fellow cellmate, his bitch. And his bitch nuzzles back.