David Byrne: Intellectually admirable, emotionally stunted

David Byrne
Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.

AS EGGHEADS GO, David Byrne nearly always arrives sunnyside up, and very runny. From the beginning, back when he was writing playful romps like "Psycho Killer," Byrne has made a display of despair that is more mordant satire than alienated anger. Celebrating worries with a jittery, cerebral angst, he was the new-wave medium for punk's visceral rage, decoding nihilism with flippant turns of phrase that carefully steered away from any truly messy shit of his own. Over the years, as he has added African and Latin musical tourism to his performance-art voyeurism, Byrne has defined himself as an intellectually admirable but emotionally stunted artist, a master of montage and a commander of high concepts that enthrall listeners with cleverness while yielding few insights into his personal angels and demons.

Feelings captures this joyful slickness as well as anything Byrne has ever done. The title harkens back (no doubt intentionally) to the sanctimonious ballad covered by so many motel lounge acts during the '70s, and the accompanying artwork features a series of plastic David Byrne dolls plus a "David Byrne mood computer," to help create your own emotional distance. In the press kit, the artist refers to "a subconscious cut-and-paste going on in our heads that doesn't seem strange at all" as the album's postmodern everyman ethos. His primary collaborators are the members of Morcheeba, a London-based trip-hop folk group whose debut last year, Who Can You Trust?, was likewise a stylistically sprawling set of atmospheric moods ingrained with hip allusions and inside jokes. The members of Devo, those masters of dumb irony, also stop by for a tune.

Thus, even by Byrne's own loose standards, Feelings is a scattershot assortment of dedicated whims that nip, lick, and growl like a puppy dog, an engaging diversion that's ultimately less than the sum of its parts. Byrne being Byrne, many of the parts are very cool. "Daddy Go Down" sounds vaguely Middle Eastern, then overtly Irish: a heavy, chugging rhythm that Byrne's vocal paints with a mournful, white-gospel tint, at least until a keening violin quickens into a fiddle and veers it in and out of hoedown territory. By contrast, "Dance On Vaseline" is classic Talking Heads funk in the vein of "Slippery People" and "Stay Up Late," neatly bisected by a clarion trumpet solo. There are gorgeous textures galore, from the Brazilian brass and percussion of "Miss America" to the Hawaiian guitar in "You Don't Know Me" to the church-organ intro of "The Gates of Paradise."

But musically and emotionally, Byrne is too shifty for anything to register for long. It's actually a welcome relief when he reduces himself to more obvious satire, as when "Miss America" riffs on the same metaphor of beauty queen and Yankee imperialist. Too many other tracks are like "A Soft Seduction," in which Byrne croons convincingly about the seemingly random life-and-death luck of the draw ("a junkie's song/a dancer's knees..."), while in the background a harmonica warbles like it's a campfire scene in a western B movie (later in the tune, a solitary whistle is used for the same effect). The question we're supposed to ask: Is this campy or sincere? No doubt Byrne enjoys the flexibility of that ambiguity, and we all do, some of the time. But inevitably the whole starts to fray and fall apart. That's how David Byrne, ever the immaculate cut-up, outsmarts himself.

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