The problem with many collaborations is that they often end up sounding like thrown-together vanity projects; and don’t really do a lot to expand the musical vocabulary of either of the participants. However, David Byrne has made a second career out of working with other musicians that some might argue pushes more boundaries than his work with Talking Heads in the ’80s.
Since launching his Luaka Bop label in 1989 with an exploration of Brazilian and Cuban musical forms (Rei Momo), Byrne’s collaborations have ranged from Celia Cruz and Nellie McKay to Thievery Corporation and Fat Boy Slim. And Byrne’s multi-decade-long collaboration with Brian Eno has resulted in music that’s become a part of rock canon. So I think it’s fair to say that Byrne’s figured out how to do collaborations and make them worth something.
In Love This Giant (dropped 10 September in the UK, today in the US), Byrne publishes 12 tracks that are the results of a two-year collaboration by wire with St. Vincent (Annie Clark), her producer John Congleton and a swirling horde of saxophones, trombones and trumpets.
The thing to know about Love This Giant is twelve-piece horn section provides all of Giant’s instumentation, creating a surprisingly limber sonic floor that has an annoying habit of sliding and shifting under you as you listen. The choice Byrne and St. Vincent made had to do with wanting to stage the music in small spaces and have it sonically work.
Knowing this makes the album’s debut single “Who” that much more of a breakthrough. Recorded in Hoboken, NJ’s Water Music Studio over the course of three years, “Who” opens with a loping bari-sax line hiccupping along on top of a punchy drum track. So when Byrne’s thin but intentional tenor dives in with “Who’ll be my valentine? Who’ll lift this heavy load?,” the result is every bit as driving and slightly manic as Fear of Music‘s “I Zimbra” and only slightly less difficult to grab a hold of.
“The Forest Awakes” shows off St. Vincent’s vocal chops and dynamic control … no mean feat based on the fact that she’s singing on top of a horn section that sounds like it consulted with Philip Glass – poly-rhythmic and fugue-like without tripping over itself. Double points to Clark for pulling it off as it’s probably the least accessible of the 12 tracks. “I Should Watch TV” feels unsettled and relentless. I found myself waiting for the big resolve–the landing solidly on a chord or chorus, the rhythm section sliding down into its groove–that never quite came. That said, “Optimist” has some really lush textures and a nice build that create a musical arc that belies the scant 3:11 we get to live with it.
And maybe that’s indicative of my biggest issue with the album as a whole. I won’t go far as to call “Love This Giant” spotty. Every one of the tracks is complete in and of itself. It’s just that taken as a whole, I feel like I have a box of puzzles to solve. Which is hardly a bad thing. But once I’ve put all the puzzles together, I’m not sure if I have 12 finished puzzles or one big one. Giant definitely deserves multiple listens to suss out the bigger pictureand to find the meaning at the center of this intriguing collaboration.