David Byrne is a busy guy. In the six years since his last full-length, 2012's St. Vincent collab Love This Giant, the 65-year old artist has maintained a creatively restless pace: in between music guest spots, he's written a book, turned one of his records into a stage production and pulled off the hugely ambitious Contemporary Color colour guard event. It doesn't really feel like he ever left.
Like many progressive-minded creatives, his return to the musical foreground was predicated by the current American political climate, but not for the reasons you'd think. Per the press release that preceded it, on American Utopia, Byrne is trying to look beyond the rhetoric, asking questions like "Is there another way?" In trying to find an answer, he assembled an all-star cast of (male) co-conspirators new and old: Sampha, Jam City, Jack Peñate, and XL Recordings in-house producer Rodaidh McDonald all contribute in some form.
But on his first proper solo album in 14 years, it's the David Byrne show. Though the credits suggests an experimental electronic record, purification through dance is the maxim, explicitly so on opener "I Dance Like This." The "world music"-infused pop grooves that he famously pioneered in Talking Heads and explored more deeply in his early solo albums are omnipresent, his reliably iconoclastic collaborators contributions seemingly bent to his vision. Even with a detailed list of credits it's hard to tell why Sampha's piano skills (his only credited contribution) were so desperately required for "Everybody's Coming to My House."
Bright and upfront in the mix is Byrne's voice. It's always been his most distinctive quality, but by his own admission, he lacks the answers he seeks. So rather than pointing a way forward, he simply points, describes and questions what he sees, mostly injustice in the form of xenophobia and racism.
Byrne's approach works well when he makes the political personal: "Everybody's Coming to My House" sees the singer opening his home to the teeming hordes, while "Doing the Right Thing" offers a satirical examination of leftist good intentions. But they fall flat when he widens his worldview, making you wish he'd buried it deeper in the mix. "This man could be a king / This woman, she's royalty," he sings on "Gasoline and Dirty Sheets." "The situation drags me down," he later sings, offering the profundity of a college dorm room jam.
In its best moments, the record is an uplifting antidote to troubled times. But that uplift comes at the expense of a deeper meaning, more distraction than catharsis. Despite the dream team behind it, American Utopia has much to like but little to love, perhaps its most apt, if unintended, critique of the country itself. (Nonesuch)