David Byrne Self Titled
By: Tyler Mandell | Top Tracks: Angels, Back in the Box & Sad Song
David Byrne’s solo career after Talking Heads had a lot of uncertainty for a while, with each album seeming to change drastically in terms of direction, style, genre, and songwriting. While I’ll be analyzing his 1994 self-titled album, it’s important to note the previous record: 1992’s Uh-Oh, which notably featured lots of goofy lyrics and loopy Latin rhythms like late period Talking Heads. The album was a commercial failure, mainly because this sort of music was out of style at the time: 1992 had the release of Nevermind by Nirvana, which established the 90s grunge movement and mainstream popularity of alternative rock. With the music scene so different, Byrne would have to change to try and fit with it.
Byrne wanted his self-titled album to be introspective and personal, inspired by how 90s musicians tended to speak from the heart about personal anguish and tragedy. He was also attempting to feature more stripped-back instrumentation for the record, replacing the large-scale worldbeat polyrhythms of his previous work with more emphasis on the lyrics.
However, this leads to the main problem of the record: While a lot of the songs here work to some degree, Byrne isn’t the kind of songwriter who can open themselves in a way that really speaks to an audience. In fact, his main style of songwriting tends to be combining random words, terms, and phrases (as seen on Remain in Light): which, by itself, goes against a more personal approach. A lot of Byrne’s lyrics feel like non-sequiturs or just words he liked the sound of, and this goes against the personal tone he’s trying to set here.
However, I’m more inclined to forgive the inconsistent songwriting if the instrumentation and melodies on the songs are good. I’m more of a music over lyrics guy anyway. There are some great songs here, like “Angels,” which sounds like a 90s update of “Once in a Lifetime,” featuring jangly guitars, mathy drums, and spectacular vocals. I also enjoyed “Back in the Box,” which is a nice mix of blues, funk, and some alternative rock influences. The lyrics are interesting too, relating to anxiety similarly to early Talking Heads. One issue I do have is that it sounds weirdly like “I Can’t Dance” by Genesis, which may be distracting to some.
A lot of the other tracks here focus more on the lyrics, and while I like a lot of the music here, the unfocused and vague songwriting prevent the songs from being as good as they could be. The track “Nothing at All,” for example, has nice riffs and atmosphere, yet the weird lyrics at the forefront don’t connect into a larger whole, as Byrne sings vague lines about a former relationship and regret of some kind. A lot of the album bleeds potential like this, with great lines across the record like “I cut myself to see who I am” and “And if our cells are our destiny / I want to be free of biology” that make you wish the album were more introspective than it was.
It’s also interesting to note that the album still has worldbeat influences though they’re inconsistent and scattered throughout. I enjoy “Sad Song” quite a bit, but it shows how unsure Byrne feels about this album. It’s a bit too poppy compared to the other tracks here. The song “My Love is You” works well as a nice indie-ish folk song with Tom Ze-style samba, though it’s too muted and understated for its own good. “You and Eye” contrasts the most with the rest of the songs, feeling like an outtake from Uh-Oh or Naked. It works as a fun soukous dance track, but it hinders the album a bit.
Keep in mind that I don’t dislike the album, I think it’s still decent with some great moments despite being undeniably flawed. Admittedly, some of this does come from my attachment to Talking Heads and Byrne which allows me to be more forgiving than I should be. Seeing artists that you hold dear challenge themselves and try new things is always a pleasure, even if it’s not always successful. I would consider this album more of a noble failure than anything else. Still, I’d recommend it for fans of David Byrne or Talking Heads, even if it may not be the most fulfilling listen.