Unlike most late-career legacy acts, David Byrne isn’t afraid to take risks. While others are covering their songwriting heroes or churning out stripped down reimaginings of their decades-old hits, he continues to swing for the fences. And more importantly, he doesn’t care what you think about the results. In his first honest-to-goodness solo album since 2004, Byrne remains an aloof observer trying to make sense of the world. American Utopia displays his daring devotion to the cerebral, arguably to the point of detaching itself completely from the emotional.
In true David Byrne fashion, the album is a mixed bag, as even irrefutable genius comes coupled with unchecked — and often misplaced — artistic ambition. At times, in moments that feel like ill-tended audio collages, he can come off as a goading performance artist (“Bullet”) or a downright parody of himself (“Every Day is a Miracle,” “Dog’s Mind”). “It’s Not Dark Up Here” could even work as a farcical track we might expect from Fred Armisen’s Byrne-esque Documentary Now! caricature. Even more so than his previous efforts, Byrne seems to be challenging his audience with silliness, weeding out the casual listeners until all that remains are those who truly “get it.”
That being said, Byrne continues to operate on a plane vastly above his peers. American Utopia plays with instrumental echoes, repeating a similar ambient throughline like the thematic basis for a film score. The same delicate piano flickers that serve as the skeleton for the record’s opener, “I Dance Like This,” are directly revisited later on, in tracks such as “This Is That.” Even when he strays from it, there is an undeniable musical thesis that permeates the album. There is jarring chaos present in the transitions, but each song orbits the same unwavering nucleus.
For those who journeyed through the inconsistent landscape unscathed, the record saves its most compelling tracks for its second half. The symphonic, ambitious “Doing the Right Thing” and the bouncy, infectious “Everybody’s Coming to My House” display David Byrne’s trademark wit, without sacrificing its aesthetic vigor. For much of the album’s tracklist, Byrne is clearly more concerned with philosophical speculation than he is with making catchy pop tunes, so it’s refreshing to find him breaking the tension with a peppy dance track.
Perhaps the tonal success of David Byrne’s collaborative efforts lies in the balance. Through its twisted fairy tales and cautionary fables, American Utopia is steeped in unshaken optimism, even in the face of tumultuous division, but it constantly feels too uneven for comfort. His corny jokes sound eerily similar to his grave warnings, and he isn’t always keen to arm the listener with the tools to distinguish between the two. The peaks run the risk of being overshadowed by the valleys, and the record is left feeling unfinished. Perhaps at this point in his career, Byrne needs St. Vincent or Fatboy Slim or Brian Eno to reign in his creative reach and boil it down to a single cohesive statement.