Review: David Byrne Throws a Weird Party in His Mind on 'American Utopia'

The timely album reminds us why the ex-Talking Head is one of pop music's greatest chroniclers of creepy disorientation

David Byrne's first studio album since 2004 is 'American Utopia.' Credit: Bryan Derballa/Redux

David Byrne's distinctive vision – a winsomely-skewed clarity – is usually most compelling when trained on scary stuff, be it psycho killers, zealous baptism metaphors, warning signs of things to come, or the sudden strangeness of one's beautiful house and beautiful wife. Lately, we've no shortage of scary stuff, and it's encouraging that Byrne's latest solo set is willing to go there. When it does, rhythms and racket ratcheting up accordingly, American Utopia – abetted by an old comrade (Brian Eno, contributing beats) and new ones (Daniel "Oneohtrix Point Never" Lopatin, Sampha/XX producer Rodaidh McDonald) – boasts some of the most exciting music Byrne has made in years.

The balance of light and dark is especially compelling on "Bullet," a travelogue of just that ("His skin did part in two/Skin that women had touched") and "Everybody's Comin' to My House," a sort of agoraphobic's kidnapping fantasy. There are ambient meditations as well as bracingly kinetic moments, like the electronic freakout in "Doing the Right Thing," and the chorus outbursts on "I Dance Like This," which conjure the datastorm of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and the disorientation of Fear of Music's "Drugs." Byrne delivers some impressively wicked guitar outbursts, too. But the frantic segments generally recede too soon, supplanted by more less-anxious downtempo bits. Often, in the spirit of Byrne's inspiring Reasons to Be Cheerful website and lecture tour, these are inspiring, i.e., the deliciously slo-mo soca groove of "Every Day Is a Miracle." For this writer, however, the most agitated parts are the most comforting. Maybe I should see someone about this. Yet it speaks to an artist who's long made a career of transforming uneasiness into bliss. In Byrne's work, anxiety always loves company.