Marshall McLuhan would have loved the concept: sample the global media blitz, edit, add polyethnic rhythm tracks, name the results after a novel by Nigerian author Amos Tutuola and recycle them into the blitz. Talking Heads’ David Byrne and audio eclectic Brian Eno have made vocal tracks from snippets of radio broadcasts and Middle Eastern music (the way Robert Fripp turned his neighbors’ fighting into “NY3”), then set them in and against percussive, repetitive mind-funk designed more for listening than dancing. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is an undeniably awesome feat of tape editing and rhythmic ingenuity. But, like most “found” art, it raises stubborn questions about context, manipulation and cultural imperialism.
What’s the difference between using evangelists’ rhetoric as lyrics (for “Once in a Lifetime” on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light) and using the voice of New Orleans preacher Reverend Paul Morton in “Help Me Somebody”? Plenty. “Once in a Lifetime” is obviously Byrne’s creation, complete on its own terms. “Help Me Somebody” is a falsified ritual, with its development truncated and its rhythm deformed. A pseudodocument, it teases us by being “real.” Even more annoying is “The Jezebel Spirit,” which utilizes a recorded exorcism. Byrne and Eno latch onto the rhythm of the exorcist’s dry laugh for the backup, but they fade out before we find out what happened to the possessed woman — which would have been a lot more interesting than the chattery band track. Blasphemy is beside the point: Byrne and Eno have trivialized the event.
Still, electronic music does have an honorable tradition of messing with speech sounds. “America Is Waiting,” “Mea Culpa” and “Come with Us” — rhythmic nuggets from an editorial, a talk show and yet another evangelist — are smart, funny-creepy transformations, justifiable because they don’t promise a narrative payoff. But messing with music is a more dubious proposition. You’d think that if Algerian Muslims had wanted accompaniment while they chanted the Koran (“Qu’ran”), they’d have invented some. Or if Lebanese singer Dunya Yusin craved a backbeat, she could have found one (Byrne and Eno’s “Regiment” sounds like something from the Midnight Express soundtrack).
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When they don’t succumb to exoticism or cuteness — luckily, that’s most of the album — the Byrne-Eno backups are fascinating, complementing the sources without absorbing them. David Byrne and Brian Eno pile up riffs and cross-rhythms to build drama, yet they keep the cuts uncluttered and mysterious. As sheer sound (ignoring content and context), many of the selections are heady and memorable. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts does make me wonder, though, how Byrne or Eno would react if Dunya Yusin spliced together a little of “Animals” and a bit of “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch,” then added her idea of a suitable backup. Does this global village have two-way traffic?