As with so many collaborations betweem famous musicians, having David Byrne and St. Vincent working together seems like a great idea on paper. In many ways, you can envision Byrne as a mentor to Annie Clark, a guiding spirit who’s been through the ringer a time or two with the Talking Heads and other projects, taking a talented young prodigy and trying to mold her on a path towards legendary success. Lord knows he doesn’t need the career boost and could probably get away with playing his classic songs for the rest of his life. Certainly Byrne’s work with Brian Eno has been the most highly regarded of his collaborations, with 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts being just the sort of strange, boundary-pushing effort to inspire a whole new generation of artists. He’s made plenty of great records since then, though arguably nothing will ever quite match his streak of greatness in the ’80s. As for clark, her ever-evolving sound has only become more potent with time, and the latest St. Vincent album Strange Mercy reaches a new peak of her songwriting and guitar skills. She doesn’t really need any favors either at this point, though the opportunity to work with Byrne is one that few smart artists would pass up.
But maybe it is that lack of necessity that makes their album together Love This Giant so comfortable and safe. Instead of taking the license of such a project and running wild with sonic experiments, what we get instead are concise pop songs punched up with a backing brass band. Such a lack of liberty would be more forgivable if the songs themselves were more compelling and memorable, but unfortunately that’s not the case either. The album’s opening song and first single “Who” is actually a very encouraging start, though it is less addictive and inspired than Byrne’s last big single with Brian Eno, 2008’s “Strange Overtones.” A less apparent highlight on the record is “Weekend in the Dust,” taking a canned beat and the funky horn section and turning them into a melody that feels rooted in ’80s or ’90s funk or R&B. It represents a markedly different approach for Clark, and even her halting Janet Jackson-esque lead vocals don’t sound like anything she’s done before. It’s the sort of boundary pushing this album could have used more of. Actually, it’s probably more of Clark’s take on some of Byrne’s known sounds, which then makes it a shame when he doesn’t really adopt much of her creative guitar work. In fact, her guitar is either absent or put behind brass for virtually the entire record, which is like having a million dollars stored in a safe at home but refusing to spend a dime of it even though you’re in debt. “The Forest Awakes” is about as guitar-heavy as this record gets, and even that provides meager offerings.
Yet it’s still Clark that comes off best on Love This Giant, and whether that has to do with songwriting, melody or general enthusiasm for the project is up for debate. Byrne mostly sounds bored, almost like he’s run out of things to say. Instead of using “I Should Watch TV” as a clever way to comment on today’s pop culture, he uses it to analyze exactly why he’s compelled to do as the song title suggests. You could say that it’s a noble search for deeper meaning, but the melody suggests a playfulness that’s simply not present otherwise. While the brass backing band is something of a bolder choice for both artists involved, one of the real tragedies is how whitewashed and bland they come off sounding. That’s especially true on tracks like “Dinner For Two” and “Lazarus,” both of which could use a little extra pep in their step and injections of instrumental creativity. Thanks to an additional assist from Antibalas and The Dap-Kings, “The One Who Broke Your Heart” is a surprising late album treat and probably the best use of brass on the entire record.
A large part of the disconnect on Love This Giant, instrumental and otherwise, probably stems from how it was pieced together. Recorded over three years in a variety of studios with files passed back and forth between Byrne and Clark, you can sort of tell that not everybody was in the same room or studio when this was created. Such are the potential perils of long distance collaboration. Inspired as this team up sounded initially, both Byrne and St. Vincent have done and will do bigger and better things down the line. Perhaps if they decide to do this again, as Byrne has done with Eno, things will turn out much differently and for the better.
David Byrne & St. Vincent – Who