New wave god turned worldbeat evangelist gets opera bug

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Grown Backwards features several striking changes in David Byrne’s sound and methods. In the first place, the familiar affection for Brazilian tropicalismo which marked out albums such as Rei Momo has been significantly reduced here, its influence lingering mostly in the marimba and percussion on tracks such as “Glass, Concrete & Stone”, which first appeared over the end credits of the 2002 Stephen Frears film Dirty Pretty Things. Instead, the instrumental palette is more wide-ranging in a subtler, more subversive manner, taking in Gallic accordion on “Civilization”, countrified pedal-steel guitar on “Astronaut”, a vaguely New Orleans-style horn-pocked shuffle-groove on “Dialog Box” and lashings of elegant string arrangements popping up all over the place.

The most noticeable change, though, is the inclusion of not one but two operatic pieces, Verdi’s “Un Di Felice, Eterea” and Bizet’s “Au Fond Du Temple Saint”, the latter performed as a duet with Rufus Wainwright. Both beautiful songs, it must be conceded, though Byrne’s untrained voice strains to negotiate the high notes adequately. There’s also a cover of Lambchop’s “The Man Who Loved Beer”, which one suspects was less taxing to master.

As usual, the lyrical content bristles with idiosyncratic concerns, or common concerns given idiosyncratic twists: things like love and loss, bodily awareness and emotional possessiveness, philosophy and civilisation (“It’s all about sex/Having a ball on a padded banquette”). And in a few songs, there are sardonic commentaries on the American government’s dubious overseas exploits. In “Empire”, Byrne mockingly sings of how “tears fill our eyes/In democratic fever/For national defence,” sarcastically demanding that “young artists and writers/Please heed the call/What’s good for business is good for us all”; while the reference to disturbing a hornet’s nest and getting stung surely makes the protagonist of “Astronaut” an ironic cipher for the Bush administration’s complacent incompetence regarding foreign affairs: “I surf the Net and watch TV/There’s peace in the Middle East/Feel like I’m an astronaut.”