David Byrne and Fatboy Slim – [Album]

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Just the concept of this album makes my head spin. David Byrne and Fatboy Slim collaborate on a pop opera about the life of Imelda Marcos? The result is as surprising and as interesting as that concept, but not necessarily what one would expect.

Musically, this album doesn't sound much like the previous work of either artist. There are moments that remind the listener of one or the other, but the sound is more straight pop than either normally produces. They have instead created a consistent brand of music which sounds both modern and fitting to the time and setting of the story. Byrne, in his liner notes, says he took inspiration from the club music of the late Seventies and early Eighties (Imelda was apparently quite the club-goer). There is also a tropical feel to many of the tunes which reflects the setting. Still, the music does not sound dated at all. The modernity of the music is a testament to how today's pop has completely absorbed that club music.

The anonymity/universality of the music is increased by the use of a variety of vocalists, mostly female, to sing the songs. These range from Tori Amos and Cyndi Lauper to Sia and Alison Moorer (with Steve Earle and Byrne himself as the two male voices). Interestingly, the singers are matched to the mood of the song, not to individual characters. This works surprisingly well; it heightens the emotional power of the songs without distracting from the story and characters.

In fact, the track that sounds the most out of place is “American Troglodyte,” sung by Byrne. It sounds most like a “David Byrne song,” not quite fitting with the musical character of the rest of the album. Further, the lyrics reference modern phenomena –  the internet, 50 Cent and reality TV – rather than remaining firmly rooted in the Eighties.

The music is subtle and catchy, overall. That may sound like an oxymoron, but it's not. There are popular songs where, after the very first listen, you go “Wow! That's a catchy song!” They implant themselves in your mind immediately. The songs here are not like that. Each tune floats by pleasantly enough on first listen and doesn't make a huge impression but, after a couple more listens, you suddenly find yourself humming one, then another and then another. They have wormed their way in without you even noticing.

Despite the club music inspiration, much of the music is not really danceable. It takes until the middle of the first disc for the beat to really kick in, and it's not until the beginning of Disc 2 (appropriately with a song titled “Dancing Together”) that things really get funky. Even after that, many of the songs move at a slower tempo.

The storyline is a complex one. Here Lies Love contrasts Marcos' life with that of her childhood maid, Estrella Cumpas. Cumpas essentially raised Imelda and her siblings; Imelda's mother made a promise to Estrella that her children would care for her in her old age. However, as Imelda rose in power, she ignored Estrella, and she was finally forced to acknowledge Estrella only when Cumpas wrote a book revealing the depth of poverty that Marcos rose from. At that point, Imelda tried to buy Estrella's silence; Estrella refused. The story is told episodically with each song capturing a moment in Imelda's life. It helps that Byrne includes extensive liner notes explaining the action and context of every song.

Byrne uses Imelda's rise to and exercise of power to examine a number of questions. First and foremost is whether power makes people selfish, or is it that the selfish seek power? While Here Lies Love humanizes Imelda Marcos, it also reveals her essential selfishness. Early on, the song “The Rose of Tacloban” shows her dreaming of her future as a rich and beautiful woman, concerned only with herself and her status.

Even so, Marcos never realized the depth of her selfishness through it all; the title comes from the words she wanted inscribed on her grave. She saw herself as the epitome of love for and of the Filipino people, yet, as the story of Estrella Cumpas clearly reveals, she could only love them as a abstraction. She had no love for an actual person, even one who had once been so important to her.

In the end, Imelda can't tell the difference between love and power. This is foreshadowed in her romance with Ferdinand Marcos. He wooed her because he saw her as a stepping stone to power; at first she believed in his love, but quickly adjusted to the role of a political wife.

In a final irony, it is the assassination of their primary political opponent, Nimoy Aquino, on Ferdinand Marcos' orders which precipitates the Marcos' downfall. The irony is that Aquino was Imelda's first love, but he turned her down for a richer girl. At the end, Imelda and Estrella sing/scream “Why don't you love me?” at each other, each unable to understand how much Imelda has changed, and why.

Byrne proposes that Here Lies Love is a theatrical piece which could be presented in a club. I'm not sure the music is consistently danceable enough to pull that off. Here Lies Love, with its' involved story, and many social and philosophical overtones, deserves a closer listen than that. It rewards repeated close listenings, as both the music and the story open up and reveal depths not heard at first.



Here Lies Love
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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