Laurie Anderson – [Album]

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Laurie Anderson is known for her storytelling – for elaborate, album-length cycles of stories – however she seems more concerned with the music than her storytelling on Homeland, her first album in over eight years. There are only three pieces here which could be called narrative, and only one of them “The Beginning of Memory” is a straight forward story. Most of the other pieces would be better described as songs, although the definition is necessarily a broad one. As is usual with Anderson, some of the work is simply unclassifiable.

Also, the musical arc of this disc is clearer than the narrative arc. Musically, the album builds slowly, reaches a peak, and then comes back down just as slowly. In the end, the listener does feel some resolution but, although several themes are clearly developed through the lyrics, they never resolve. Instead, one is left with a sense of contradiction; of themes which cannot be reconciled.

The album starts with four atmospheric, evocative pieces. They have a subtle beauty, but they are all effervescent and dreamlike; they tend to slip away from your grasp. The quiet is broken by the sudden, savage blast of guitar that opens “Only an Expert.” “Another Day in America,” the eleven-minute centerpiece of the album, is interesting in that Anderson's voice – electronically modified to sound like a man – is actually the lead instrument; making it a powerful contrast to the softer pieces, dominated by her violin. The last half of the album returns to a quieter mode, yet is faster and more complex than the opening cuts. The album effectively fades out with “The Beginning of Memory” and the instrumental “Flow.” This makes for a perfect of arc, of both volume and complexity.

Lyrically, the structure is much less satisfying. Rather than an arc, it is structured more as a web; coming at her various themes from different directions without reaching any conclusion. There are two main themes here: the passage of time, and our current political and economic situation in America. In general, the quieter pieces deal with time, the louder ones politics. Still, both themes pop up throughout the album, at times overlapping. They become more intertwined as the album proceeds.

Although the very first lines (“It's a good time for bankers/ and winners and sailors/ with their stories of jackpots”) refer to our current economic situation, the opening suite all deals with the passage of time. Lines float out of the musical mist. “Everything keeps changing/ it's transitory” (“Transitory Life”), “unstoppable time/ all the things you left behind/ in the night” (“My Right Eye”), “I was thinking of you/ I was thinking of you/…" then, "I wasn't thinking of you/ anymore” (“Thinking of You”). The combination of the drifting lyrics and atmospheric music feels like memory – where things are often not clear, but the impression that they are important is plain. The theme continues throughout Homeland.

Suddenly, with “Only an Expert,” the real world breaks into this reverie. Just as the piece is a drastic change in the musical themes of the album, it is also a dramatic shift in its' thematic direction. “Only an expert,” it says, “can deal with the problem.”

“Let's say you're invited to be on Oprah
but you don't have a problem
but you want to go on the show
so you need a problem.
So you invent a problem.
But if you're not an expert on problems
you're probably not going to make up a very plausible problem
so you're probably going to get nailed.”

The song moves from Oprah to take in climate change, the war in Iraq and the financial collapse, without missing a beat, lyrically or musically.

In the album's second half, Anderson attempts to bring the themes she's working with here together. After the beautiful interlude of “Falling,” “Another Day in America” covers both themes, dealing with modern life and the passage of time. It is a complex, scattershot piece and notions about time (“What are days for?/ To fit between the endless nights./ Days are where we live”) bump up against commentary on American culture, without the two ever interacting. It envisions a collapsed society, and asks “How do we start? How do we begin again?” However, the various pieces are left disjointed; the track never builds to any sort of conclusion.

"Dark Time in the Revolution,” which describes the circumstances of Thomas Paine's writing of Common Sense, hints that the solution to our problems lies in the past. “The Beginning of Memory,” which tells a story from Aristophanes' The Birds, subtly repeats this theme by emphasizing the importance of memory. Before the existence of memory, the birds, the only creatures in existence, “were constantly flying in circles.” Perhaps the answers to our problems lie in the past, if we could only remember them. But “Bodies in Motion,” which comes between those two cuts, implies that things get better naturally through the passage of time.

This leaves Anderson's overall message ambiguous. She never really brings her themes to a successful conclusion. Can we tackle our problems with lessons from the past? Maybe, but by focusing so much on how time passes and things change naturally, she presents a counter-argument – "Why worry about how things are now, they won't last."

On Homeland, Laurie Anderson gives us plenty to think about – about time, memory, and the state of the world – but offers little in the way of answers. Taking that into consideration, the singer's intent on Homeland may be to get us thinking, rather than tell us what to think.

is not an easy album to absorb musically or lyrically but, if you give it proper attention, it is very rewarding.



is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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