Everything That Happens Will Happen Today - David Byrne & Brian Eno
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Review of "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today - David Byrne & Brian Eno"
I shall return and catch up with ratings when I'm old...so, in about nine days then
In these days where the heady rush of instant-gratification multi-media leaves it mighty awkward to appreciate the artistic worth of anything at all, an age where careers aren't allowed to grow organically and today's big thing is increasingly tomorrow's fish and chips wrapping, an era where record companies run in a mad panic from solution provider to venture capitalist in hopelessly ill-thought-out attempts to come up with a business model that justifies their ongoing existence...why the hell should anyone get excited by a collaboration between two men with a combined age of 116?
Come With Us
Well, it does rather depend on the two men concerned, doesn't it? Because at the other end of the scale from the armies of 'crash and burn' merchants who reveal themselves to have nothing more than an album's worth of inspiration in the tank before dutifully vanishing are the artists who only have an album's worth of inspiration in the tank but manage to spend years re-releasing that same album's worth of inspiration because their audience is sufficiently undemanding to let them get away with it. Which is how Oasis are up for the 'Best Act In The World Today' gong at this year's Q Awards despite sounding increasingly like a hilarious Oasis parody act as the years go by. So I, for one, am prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to two artists who at least try to keep stretching themselves, and who were nothing short of magnificent when they last worked together.
Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno (probably best to overlook the 'Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle' bit) began his career by being a purveyor of sonic weirdness and complication on early Roxy Music records, before leaving in 1973 (at least the way he tells it) when he found himself wondering if he'd remembered to do his laundry while actually playing concerts. Notice the 'Riff Raff From The Rocky Horror Show' clone twiddling knobs and laying down wooziness at about 1:00 in this clip...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zoi6O-cq9I&feature=related
Declaring himself a 'non-musician', he proceded to 'invent ambient music' (despite the fact that the vast majority of music can function in an ambient fashion if you think about it) with such albums as 'Music For Airports' and 'Day Of Radiance' while also specialising in electronic pop-inflected records such as 'Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy' and 'Here Come The Warm Jets'. With his gift for imparting atmosphere, his becoming a producer and collaborator was inevitable, producing such seminal 70s records as Devo's splendidly titled 'Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!' and being intimately involved with the even more seminal Bowie 'Berlin' trilogy. And at a show in the Rock Garden, London, on the 14th May 1977, Brian Eno saw a New York band named Talking Heads.
King's Lead Hat
The Heads had been nurtured in the legendary NYC club CBGBs, centrepiece of the burgeoning East Coast punk scene. But they weren't proper punk: they were like many bands grabbed onto record company rosters in the mid to late 70s, signed in terror by A&R men desperate not to be seen to have missed the pogo-and-spittle powered boat. In reality they were the personification of art rock, formed as they were by three students from the Rhode Island School Of Design. These three (David Byrne and husband-and-wife-god-given-rhythm-section Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth) later added Harvard-educated former Modern Lover Jerry Harrison, and had gained a huge reputation from their debut album 'Talking Heads: 77' with its Randy-Newman-Sung-By-Alice-Cooper centrepiece 'Psycho Killer', and from their galvanic live performances.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjLYt_MSQ9Q
Byrne himself was a magnetic presence, borderline autistic by his own admission and seemingly much too cracked and fragile to be fronting a rock band, and with a phenomenally acute but slightly skewed perspective on the everyday when he wrote. Many thought the ensemble would never be any more than a temporary critical rave (their debut managing to emphasise their weirdness over their obvious (with hindsight) accessibility), and when their socialising with Eno led to a request to their label (Sire) than he produce their second album, surely it could only end in tears? Or, as Byrne's girlfriend of the time put it, Sire worried that 'they'd make some whole new kind of ambient Muzak no-one would understand'.They needn't have worried. Eno proceeded to produce or co-produce three Heads albums, and they're all fantastic.
The relationship began with the pithily monikered 'More Songs About Buildings And Food' (1978): as the title suggests, this was a further exploration of the themes of the first album, but benefitting hugely from the sonic warmth that Eno brought, and even spawning a hit single (their choice of Al Green's 'Take Me To The River' should have been enough of a hint to the masses that the Heads' trawled their influences using a net that caught a lot more than mere punk). Next up was the very dark and tense 'Fear Of Music' (1979), with its exercises in non-rational logic songwriting (is a piece of paper really the most important thing in someone's life? Might animals not be noble savages, but merely creatures with a lot of issues of their own who we shouldn't pay attention to?) and embryonic dabblings in Africana. The culmination was 1980's 'Remain In Light', a riotous cross-pollination of punk, afro-funk and New Wave that remains (arf) one of the most influential albums of the last thirty years. See below for a reminder of just how brilliant it is...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYbUCvz1LYE
(It's worth remembering that while the rock video has basically died on its arse now, the Heads canon of promo clips may well be the best there is. But even their interpretations can be improved upon...)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jbya4kxC6E
Help Me SomebodyBut more relevant to the matter at hand is an album that Byrne and Eno released without the other Heads in 1981 (although it was recorded in 1979-80, and Heads drummer Chris Frantz plays on one track): My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. A complete meltdown of polyrhythms, scratchy guitars, tape loops and 'found' vocals (recorded off the radio, for instance), it's a quite extraordinary 40 minutes and is even more influential than 'Remain In Light' despite how much effort it requires to listen to. As a form of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant rap music, you can make a good case for it having invented sampling (don't ask me: ask Public Enemy...if they return your calls).
(This is a sample track: 'The Jezebel Spirit. Be warned this contains moderately scary pictures, and honest to God is one of the more accessible cuts):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkGAltttzFc
And after that, Eno and the Heads/Byrne didn't work together.
The reasons for this are fuzzy. It would seem that Eno's presence had started to amplify the internal friction that always existed in the Heads (the constant description of Eno as the 'unofficial fifth Head' rankled some internal parties, one suspects). Songwriting credits became a serious sore point (especially when the Remain In Light tracks, largely created from band jams, were credited to 'David Byrne/Brian Eno/Talking Heads' on the liner notes, as though Talking Heads were Byrne's backing band). So when the next Heads album, 'Speaking In Tongues' came around in 1983, Eno was nowhere to be seen: perhaps he'd been used as a method by which Byrne, Frantz, Weymouth and Harrison absolved themselves of blame for their troubles in order to find a way to keep working together.The Heads kept going for another three albums (and the quite, quite magnificent live concert movie 'Stop Making Sense'), always excellent but never QUITE as great as they'd been with the benefit of Eno's knob twiddling. Byrne won an Oscar for his contribution to the score of 'The Last Emperor', wrote and directed a movie of his own ('True Stories', whose songs were released as a Talking Heads album) and the Heads finally succumbed to their internal tensions / their singer's desire to do other things in 1991.
Stay HungryUnleashed from any obligations towards bandmates, Byrne launched into an orgy of polymathematics. He formed his own record label, Luaka Bop (initially to release compilations of popular songs from various cultures as he continued to be a leading light in the 'World Music' field, and later signing artists he particularly liked). He scored a few more films (in particular 'Married To The Mob' and 'Young Adam'). He continued his own recording career with 1989's Brazilian facsimile 'Rei Momo', 1992's highly enjoyable pop-with-latin-colourations 'Uh-Oh', 1994's Jackson Brown-esque 'David Byrne', 1997's more electronic 'Feelings', 2001's excellent 'strings and beats' combo 'Look Into The Eyeball' and 2004's more-strings-and-beats-but-with-the-odd-operatic-aria-thrown-in 'Grown Backwards'. He is working with Norman 'Fatboy Slim' Cook on a musical about Imelda Marcos. He has exhibited his fair share of contemporary art (some 'worthy-but-dull', some utterly hilarious such as his creation of a 'playable musical instrument' from an old Manhattan ferry terminal building). He has appeared (as himself) on 'The Simpsons'. And, many years after the fact, he scored an enormous hit single with 'Lazy', a 2002 collaboration with dance duo X-Press 2.
(For a clearer insight into Byrne's world and projects, I can't recommend his journal at http://www.davidbyrne.com enough: one of the very finest blogs on the web).In the meanwhile...Eno continued to slip out his albums, solo and collaborations (John Cale, Robert Fripp, his brother Roger)...as his former colleague Bryan Ferry pointed out Eno recorded cheaply and put everything out himself, so while not roaringly commercial, all his records were profitable. And he continued to produce...
The 80s saw Eno gradually transformed from 'one of the coolest producers in the world' to 'one of the most successful producers in the world'. He maintains that his methods haven't changed, and one has to believe him, but...one of his most famous conceits are the 'Oblique Strategies' tarot cards, designed so that the musician would pick one at random and follow its instruction: 'Don't be afraid of things because they are easy to do.' 'Only a part, not the whole'. 'Don't break the silence'. And so on. Some of us believe that the cards marked 'Get Bono to remove his head from his rectum every once in a while' and 'if that Chris Martin fella calls, pretend you're out' must have fallen out of the pack at some point. Because, alas, to these ears, hiring Eno (who prefers to be called a 'sonic landscaper' these days) has become the tried-and-tested method by which artists travelling comfy commercial ruts try to fool the audience that they're changing direction and getting all adventurous when they actually aren't. So, this year has seen him make Coldplay sound like a slightly echoey wish-we-were-Bends-era-Radiohead band, as opposed to a mere wish-we-were-Bends-era-Radiohead band, next year will see another U2 record ('we're recording in Morocco! It'll have African influences!' Of course it bloody won't), and in the intervening period he's collaborated with Dido. Yes, you read that right. Dido.(And he's Youth Affairs Advisor to the Liberal Democrats. Erm...he's sixty. And he did 'The Microsoft Sound'. Sheesh.)
(But he did appear as 'Father Brian Eno' in the last episode of 'Father Ted'. I can forgive a man a lot for that. But not an Oasis album Brian, y'hear?)
The Good Thing
In 2006, Byrne and Eno hooked up again to re-release 'My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts'. Eno mentioned that he had a lot of tracks lying around that he hadn't had time or been able to put vocals and top-line melodies to, and Byrne asked to have a go at them...With labour reasonably strictly divided (Eno on music, Byrne on lyrics and vocal melodies) and the two parties rarely meeting (most material was exchanged via email, with Eno and multi-instrumentalist Leo Abrahams in London and Byrne with drummer Seb Roachford in New York), recording was fairly protracted. Determined that this be an album of 'sung songs' rather than '...Bush Of Ghosts' with its full-on sonic collage, Byrne had to work hard to overcome his unfamiliarity with Eno's favoured 'simple arrangement, major chords' predilections, while Eno often found himself radically revising his contributions once he'd heard Byrne's melodies.
With the album finished, Byrne and Eno decided (based on their mutual antipathy towards the record company 'model' of music sale) to promote the record via word-of-mouth and the internet. Upon 'release' on the 18th August, the album was available as a digital download at a variety of bitrates, with physical media to follow if requested. Web widgets were provided for bloggers to post streaming audio from the website...http://www.everythingthathappens.com/
...from where the album is exclusively available (for now) and from where it can be streamed in its entirety.Personally, I purchased the CD+digital download option for $14.99 (including shipping of the CD: this works out to about £8.50 at present, and frankly if David Byrne came up to me in the street and asked for a fiver I'd give it to him, such is the level of pleasure and inspiration he's given me since I was nine years old...I'd give him a kidney if he asked nicely or sang 'The Big Country'...for that reason and also because he's never worked with Coldplay I chose to go via his site rather than Eno's). For that I got a swiftly-emailed link from which I could download a .zip file containing the files as 320Mbps files (far higher than Radiohead when they released 'In Rainbows' online, and there is an option of lossless .flac if that's your poison) and the artwork/liner notes as a .pdf.
Anyway, after 2000 words I still haven't really reviewed the album. Well, lest 'off-topic' become my new middle name, to use the Talking Heads wording of yore...
This Is The Review Part Of The Review
We live in troubled times, but Byrne and Eno have decided to plough a 'positivity in the face of adversity' furrow, as opposed to a 'black, black, BLACK!!!' abyss, although one wonders if such vibes would have survived a self-styled neo-con creationist soccer-mom nutter being a heartbeat away from leading the free world...thank heavens it's 2008 rather than a very plausible scenario for 2009. With that the emphasis is most definitely on 'melody' and (for the most part) 'uplift', with Byrne describing the record as 'electronic gospel'. Which it kinda is, but not just that.
1) Home - We start with an acoustic guitar and a percussion track like a machine running in a rain-swept alleyway, and Byrne starts crooning on top. In such a languid and reminiscing song, it's worth bearing in mind what a lovely (yet utterly individual) instrument his voice has become: compare this with the psychotic yelping he produced at CBGBs in 1975.
'Home- were my parents telling the truth?'
'Home- will infect what ever you do'
2) My Big Nurse - A lovely strummed ballad takes a wide-eyed look at the world...'I'm counting all the possibilities, for dancing on this lazy afternoon'. Eno's trappings burble away nicely in the background, and suddenly the hugeness of the future becomes exciting, informed as it is with the accomplishments of the past. It could just be that this is a 'sounds like it's about everything, but it's actually about nothing' song, but it's so warm and cheery and (whisper it) sincere that such vagueness is just about forgiven.3) I Feel My Stuff - Possibly more like the sort of material you thought Byrne and Eno would produce, dark minor piano runs underpin a series of contemporary snapshots either creepily crooned or startlingly cackled by Byrne in a manner reminiscent of the Talking Heads classic 'Swamp'. There's a lot of apparent free-association going on, but as is often the case with that tactic there are some riveting moments of clarity.
'The chicken shack,
the rising sun,
the written word in a foreign tongue'
4) Everything That Happens - A song that takes the 'electronic gospel' concept and makes it flesh, with an electric guitar of vast ambience and very tasteful Eno embroidery sitting behind a deeply hymnal Byrne vocal, you really could imagine this being sung in a church in a street of white picket fences. In terms of subject matter, it almost resembles Talking Heads 'Road To Nowhere': futile and existential, yet somehow celebratory. The world might end today, y'know...but it could have ended on every other day in history.5) Life Is Long - A more thumpingly percussive and brassy intro brings us into a cracking mid-tempo pop song, with another gospel-flecked and deeply infectious chorus. As with a lot of the lyrics on the album, there's an air of 'there's an awesome mess out there, but there are some things we can undo and many things we can't, so let's make the best of what we have': it's a nice sentiment, and it's good to know that at least one American shares it, even if technically he's actually Scottish. And I could swear that he actually starts yodelling on the fadeout...
6) The River - With a backing like a subdued but strangely tricksome marching band, we see through the eyes of a man on a stage watching as a river literally or metaphorically rises up and sweeps away everything that has come before...well, would you be THAT surprised if there was some sort of revolution?'The river rise up,
and flows above the interstate,
beyond the schools and shops'...
'there's no way to communicate.
The water's moving on,
beyond the lies and hypocrites...'
And it's obvious that this is exactly what the protagonist wants. Well, the song's character does have a day job in a restaurant...just like Byrne did in the early days of Talking Heads...7) Strange Overtones - Now, in an alternate universe, this sort of thing is a hit single. Melding a certain white funk sensibility with Byrne's best skyscraping croon, it's totally irresistible. Quite possible a song about the writing of a song...
'This groove is out of fashion,
these beats are 20 years old'...
'The rising of the verses,
a change of key will let you out'
8) Wanted For Life - 'Light Industrial', a bit like Trent Reznor's Prozac-ed up cousin, is the genre essayed by Eno's sonic landscaping this time round, as Byrne sings with what must assume is ironic positivity and celebration. Possibly one of the more obvious fillers on the album. More snapshots of modern life, and having sung about buildings 30 years ago, it seems that ole Dave has finally got round to singing from the point of view of one.'Now upon this earth
We stand on dirt
Well I Got tore down
But I'm still standing up'
Good job these buildings aren't in Britain: the Daily Mail would never allow standards of grammar like that to go unchecked.9) One Fine Day - A backing track that Eno played to Chris Martin during the making of the latest Coldplay meisterwerk, with a view to Apple and Pomegranate's (or whatever they're called) dad having a go at writing a song to it. He tried, but once he heard Byrne's stab he stalked back to his lair of turtlenecked sweaters and woolly hats. Sensible man. While not as sonically 'gospel', all the lyrical references to 'a city on a hill', 'we can use the stars to guide the way' mean it has its beady eye firmly on the rapture.
10) Poor Boy - The album's other bizarre-athon: machine noise, disembodied human voices, animal sounds...that's just the first ten seconds. The closest 'Everything Happens...' gets to the vibe of 'My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts', with Byrne's voice lurching wildly from uncomfortably distant and eerie to uncomfortably up close and in your face, a guitar that is distinctly African (the left-handed Byrne plays right handed, and as such has always been a hugely inventive rhythm guitarist) and a protagonist who has been profoundly whipped by life.11) The Lighthouse - The album finally drifts into the light with its most ambient offering: a raft of waterline imagery from Byrne (he's building a house of water, which strikes me as being slightly impractical but it might just save the construction industry: you never know) floats upon a bath of warm washes and lapping electronica from Eno. What does the lighthouse symbolise? I haven't a clue, but for me there's something tremendously satisfying in that: here I am, still totally stumped by what David Byrne is on about, just like I was when I was nine.
So, I very much doubt that in 30 years time folk will be citing 'Everything That Happens Will Happen Today' as a milestone in recorded sound: who knows, maybe in 30 years time we won't be recording sound anyway? It was always asking too much for Byrne and Eno to reinvent the wheel, or discover the wheel's replacement. Like Radiohead did, they've taken what they've learned from everything they've done before, and used it to subtle yet glorious effect. It comforts as background and it arrests as foreground, and there aren't many albums like that kicking about these days.Eno isn't a live performer, but Byrne is putting together a tour based on the material from this album, 'Bush Of Ghosts' and the three Talking Heads albums on which Eno worked...a tour with dancers and multiple percussionists and EVERYTHING. I can't wait. But looking forward...
Eno has Jason Donovan as a neighbour. Now there's a collaboration the world is waiting to hear.
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Listed on Ciao since: 07/09/2008