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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

David Byrne & St. Vincent: Love This Giant


1) Who; 2) Weekend In The Dust; 3) Dinner For Two; 4) Ice Age; 5) I Am An Ape; 6) The Forest Awakes; 7) I Should Watch TV; 8) Lazarus; 9) Optimist; 10) Lightning; 11) The One Who Broke Your Heart; 12) Outside Of Space & Time.

General verdict: A curiously clumsy pop artefact whose pretense does not at all seem to match the emotional power and meaning of its melodies. In other words, "I respect this, but it sucks".

Since I have no immediate plans to cover the colorful career of Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, and since this album is genuinely a balanced collaboration between her and David Byrne, we might just as well file this under Byrneʼs discography for the moment. As we know, David is a big fan of joint projects, and some of his past collaborative activities clearly show why — My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, for one thing, is a classic that did require the joint talents of Byrne and Eno to deserve that status. But as the new millennium came into being, and with it, the added yearning to stay «relevant» in the world of artistic evolution, it is only natural that he would begin seeking out younger collaborators from the next generation.

On paper, St. Vincent might look like the perfect choice — she is young enough to be Davidʼs daughter, she is an unconventional pop artist with a predilection for all things weird and eccentric, and she has been compared to just about everybody in the art-pop world, from Bowie to Kate Bush and beyond. Taking the vintage boomer madness of David Byrne and synthesizing it with the fresh millennial creativity of St. Vincent seems like an instant-win formula, and such is the impression that you get from reading quite a few glowing reviews in the mainstream press — yet on the whole, the reaction was mixed, and the album never got truly enshrined as a classic for either Byrne or Annie Clark... and I think I can see why.

Love This Giant is definitely very «creative». The basic idea, suggested by St. Vincent, was to write a set of pop songs around brass-based arrangements, because... because why not. This does give an aura of relative sameness to the proceedings, but since the brass melodies themselves follow all sorts of different patterns, from classic R&B to Latin to marching bands to Radiohead-style freakouts (think ʽThe National Anthemʼ), this is not a big problem. The songs themselves are complex, twisted artefacts, with intricate and unpredictable combinations of brass, drums (largely programmed), synth bass, convoluted vocal overdubs from the two main singers, and surprisingly little guitar, in spite of Annieʼs well-advertised mastery of the instrument. It is hard to define their relative genres and even harder to ascribe specific meanings to their vividly impressionistic lyrics. But isnʼt that a sign of elusive genius?..

Actually, not quite. As the songs slowly sink in, listen after listen, I begin to understand that this is the kind of record that I, at best, will remember with polite respect, but not with the kind of emotional admiration that my conscience reserves for true genius. Like most other acclaimed art-pop wizards of the 2000s, such as Sufjan Stevens (whose touring band Annie was actually in before embarking on a proper solo career) and Joanna Newsom, St. Vincent is one of those Artists who spend way too much time wiring up the neon lights to the big A — instead of, at least sometimes, just cutting loose and telling things the way they are. Whenever she takes the wheel on this album, I definitely get that she is trying to do something, but I almost never get what it is exactly that she is trying to do; and when I do seem to get it, it turns out that I have to think about it rather than feel about it, which is simply not the way that genius art works. It does not help, either, that she has a fairly common singing voice and that, whenever she does get to play the guitar, she is quite mediocre at it (I know that Annieʼs guitar playing is sometimes toted as iconic for female players, but I am not sure how anybody seriously familiar with the story of guitar playing from Hendrix to Belew to Prince to, say, Marc Ribot could characterize her work as anything but amateurish in nature).

Still, passable singing and guitar playing do not matter much if the songwriting and general artistry are top level, and these songs are not top level. All are credited jointly to David and Annie, and there is a visible effort to somewhat synthesize the styles of the two, but, at the very least, they are still separated by who takes lead vocal on what, and it also seems as if St. Vincent is really, really, really trying to out-weird David at his own game, so the Byrne-led songs actually sound a bit more conventional, both melody-wise and lyrics-wise, than Annieʼs. What is worse, with all due respect to those who are sick and tired of the word «chemistry», there is about as much of it in between the two artists as the album cover, on which they look like two long-lost separated members of the Addams Family, suggests.

The record does set out with a bit of a promise: ʽWhoʼ is a good example of a Byrne dirge, with a touching vocal melody that goes from confused verse to plaintive chorus — except that Annieʼs melismatic bridge of "who is an honest man?" does not fit in well, sounding more like a random interpolation from some other song (say, about a cheating lover or something) than part of an ongoing dialog between the two protagonists. Actually, there is very little dialog between Byrne and St. Vincent anywhere on the album: every once in a while, they sing a few lines in unison, usually with one singer clearly overshadowing the other, and thatʼs it. The record feels more like a Meistersingersʼ competition than a truly joint project.

On the St. Vincent side, a typical song will be something like ʽIce Ageʼ, with its metronomic mid-tempo rhythm, quietly and inobtrusively bubbling brass riffage, and unconventionally accentuated words ("oh dia-MOND... all unbutTONED..."). Stare at the lyrics long enough and you will get the idea that the song is about an emotionally obstructed partner, but the idea is not at all supported by the music, which, at best, sounds like inoffensive jazz-pop on tranquilizers. Did I say there is no chemistry between St. Vincent and Byrne? Well, much of the time there is even no chemistry between St. Vincent and the music that backs her up: the potentially gorgeous Cocteau Twins-ish falsetto refrain of "we wonʼt know how much we lost until the winter thaws" loses its impact in the company of that ugly synth bass line and those meandering, decidedly un-romantic brass patterns. Unconventional experimental patterns like these are scattered all through the album, but rarely, if ever, end up making much emotional sense.

On the Byrne side, a typical song will be something like ʽI Should Watch TVʼ, another of Davidʼs ironic portrayals of the confused urban dweller; but it has been a long time since David last managed to convincingly act out a paranoid existence, and neither the vocal melody nor the usual atmospheric brass arrangement help the song to become memorable. Sometimes he falls back on classic vocal tricks — ʽDinner For Twoʼ distantly echoes ʽDonʼt Worry About The Governmentʼ, for instance — but doing so does not bring back the energy of classic Talking Heads, not when the music is dominated by this math-rockish approach to brass playing.

Overall, I would not want to make any hasty generalizations, and Iʼd even be totally open to taking some of the nasty things said above back if they ever gave me a second chance — all I can say for sure is that Love This Giant was built upon one daring, experimental idea («let us make an album that has saxophones and trombones as the main instruments and does not sound like Blood, Sweat & Tears!»), and that the idea did not work. It is perfectly possible to teach yourself to love this giant, uh, I mean, album — just latch on to its complexity, its multiple layers, its symbolism, its clear desire to produce something fresh and intelligent — but, honestly, I just do not have that much love in me to forcefully waste it on this kind of record.


  1. George, I'm a long-time fan of yours, particularly your writing on artists of an earlier epoch (the Gates of Paradise review was up there with your best stuff), but you may as well rubber stamp your modern indie (& related) reviews with a "get off my lawn!" and be done with it. I don't even consider myself a particularly big fan of Ms. Clark, but it strikes me that only someone with a rather large and unreasonable bias would bother to diminish her talents (which are self-evident) or fault her approach (which, as slightly left-of-center art pop, is closer to classic Talking Heads than more reasonable targets for criticism like Joanna Newsom or Sufjan Stevens).

    1. So St. Vincent is "self-evidently" great and no reasonable person can question her talents? Sure...

      As for me (while not an expert on her output by any means) I have yet to hear a single song from her I would classify as great or even emotionally involving. She's the brand of indie that makes me bristle personally and George is spot on about her absurdly overrated guitar skills. She has talent no doubt and is a cut above most indie rock guitarists, but no one would be calling her a "guitar god" if not for her gender.

      I can understand why some would dislike Sufjan and Joanna Newsom but at least I get some emotion and unique arrangements from them. With St. Vincent I hear nothing but artifice and posturing. But that's just me...

    2. Hm, I don't know - certainly, the indie press contorted itself into pretzels presenting St Vincent as The Woman Who Is Singlehandedly Saving Rock and/or Roll From Its Misogynistic Hedonistic Excess, at least, until they decided a couple years that Mitski was The Woman Who Is Singlehandedly Etcetera Etcetera and will then realize in the near future that actually it's Snail Mail who is The Woman Who Blah Blah Blah. That stuff is all dumb - a woke veneer on the patronizing "hey, girls can play guitar too" brand of music journalism.

      But man, if you think St Vincent's put out zero good music, then you are definitely overcorrecting from that hype. You don't think she's put out music with unique arrangements? George just reviewed an album full of songs with unique arrangements! I mean, he panned it, but it's still unique.

      Anyway, this is kind of a cheat, I'll admit, but I think the artifice and posturing in her oeuvre is a bit deliberate. Maybe even meta, what with the concept album about actors called "Actor." I dunno, I think she writes some good tunes, what can I tell ya.

    3. I was kind of intrigued, so I just listend to 5 of St.Vincent's videos and the only really evident thing was boredom all the way. No variety in the voice, evertything had the same sound. If there is any talent she hides it very well and I for one have no intetion to dig deeper.

  2. Nah, green all the way. I can't even bring myself to respect this effort, even though I have a deep respect for Byrne and I love many of St. Vincent's albums.

    Seriously, this is a musical equivalent of a casual hookup/one night stand. I love how Bowie and Eno actually spent a lot of time together talking and getting to know each other before they went into the studio. And I love that Bowie/Pop collaborations were a kind of a mirror for their real-life relationship. I don't think (though I can't know for sure) this is the case of Byrne and Annie Clark — it looks like a casual one-off thing, a kind of expanded 'ft.' thing.

    And I can't get away from the though that both of them are just showing off before one another. As if Annie tries to impress her idol and Byrne is kind of making sure that he still has it compared to the latest generation artist.

  3. No, she's self-evidently talented, and you're free to disagree about her greatness - I said I don't consider myself a particularly big fan - but to accuse her of being a self-important artist in the way of the other two examples just strikes me as painting all indie wunderkinds with too broad a brush. If someone as pop-centric and, I insist, relatively unpretentious as St. Vincent sets off that kind of knee-jerk reaction in George...well, I'd personally rather read more Robert Fripp solo reviews than hear the same old anti-indie argument restated for the nth time. But, of course, it's George's website and he's free to do as he pleases. Just an opinion from a fan.

    P.S. I personally think Sufjan has made three great albums, but I can much more readily understand George's ideological differences in that case.