Ok, let's get this over with. More Songs About Buildings and Food. Fear of Music. Remain in Light. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. For extra music nerd cred, I could also mention selected tracks on David Byrne's soundtrack to Twyla Tharp's The Catherine Wheel. There we go—I've just fulfilled what seems to be the requirement for any review of the new David Byrne/Brian Eno collaboration, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, by name-checking the previous Byrne/Eno collaborations, as though taking careful note of a handful of albums made by these two between 1978 and 1981 is an accurate (or appropriate) metric by which to judge the current album.
When they last collaborated, Byrne and Eno were 28 and 32, respectively—they are now 56 and 60 and presumably in very different places as middle-aged men than they were in the early 80s. In the albums that came after their work with Eno, Talking Heads veered toward a poppier sound (à la Little Creatures) and in Byrne's solo work, he's become much more of a musical polyglot and his releases have embraced world music even more than his work in Talking Heads did (cf. his work since Rei Momo and his starting up the Luka Bop label)—his voice has also calmed in more recent years from the trademarked yelp and shout of his work with Talking Heads. And in Eno's case—aside from releasing album upon album of ambient work with any number of different collaborators—he has, since last working with Byrne, been the primary producer (teaming with Daniel Lanois—whose work he has also helped produce) for U2 as well as having had a hand in work by The Neville Brothers, James, Suede, Depeche Mode, INXS, Peter Gabriel, Sinéad O'Connor, Massive Attack, David Bowie, Coldplay and Paul Simon.
In short, were ETHWHT to have come out in 1982? Then the previous Byrne/Eno collaborations would be fair game for comparison. But it's been 27 years, and far too much has gone on in the interim to alter the musical output of either man for the comparison to be at all enlightening beyond this statement: Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is nothing at all like My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Sonically the closest counterparts from each participant would be Byrne's Look Into the Eyeball or Feelings and Paul Simon's Surprise, for which Eno provided the "sonic landscape" or Wrong Way Up, the album that Eno recorded with John Cale. About the only tie between MLitBoG and ETHWHT is that the former sampled sermons and exorcisms and Byrne and Eno have described the music on the latter as falling under the umbrella of Gospel music.
Wait—what? Huh? Gospel music? I wouldn't be surprised if your reaction was like mine after I began reading interviews and David Byrne's blog in prepping for this review, already having given the album a few listens. Fear not: this is not your church's gospel music. About the only time the album sounds at all like an exemplar of the genre is on the title track, while during the final choruses, a choir of voices materializes to fill up the vast space in an echoey Lanois-like soundscape (see? this is why it's silly to refer to decades-old collaborations—by 1981, Eno and Lanois had yet to do much serious work together and Lanois had yet to develop his signature airy sound, which seems to have rubbed off on Eno).
Let's return for a moment to the word "gospel" itself: it comes from the Old English godspel which literally translates to "good news." And while historically this has meant a particular piece of news, there is nothing in the word itself to tie it to a specifically Christian context. And this is how Byrne seems to be taking it. On his blog, he describes the songs as "fairly uplifting" and having a "hopeful" tone, in spite of "a sinister inflection to both the lyrics and music." Extrapolating in an interview with Pitchfork, where the interviewer has detected "undercurrents" of both "optimism" and "dread," Byrne notes that "Yeah, it flip-flops one to the other. To me, it's optimism in spite of the dread, in spite of what's going on. In spite of cars exploding, things like that, a kind of basic human feeling—exalted or whatever—that things are going to go on. Life will go on." And when Alan White asked about the gospel connection, Byrne responded: "It certainly is so basic to the undercurrent for a lot of American pop music. And lyrically, in that music there's a lot of hope in the face of complete despair or tragedy. And that seemed attractive—I thought this feels right at this time, when I might be completely pessimistic and cynical about politics and the state of the world, maybe this kind of approach is an antidote to that."
This then may very well be the first agnostic (perhaps Taoist?) gospel album. The lyrics display a Whitmanesque cool to the fragmentation and chaos of modern life: in "Everything That Happens," the "sound of someone laughing" is juxtaposed to seeing one's "neighbor's car explode," all without a change in the reverential tone of the song. In "Wanted for Life," Byrne gives thanks regardless of circumstance:
Now upon this earth
We stand on dirt
Well I got tore down
But I'm still standing up
Ev'ry little drop
(I'm thankful for) ev'ry little drop
And in the final song of the album, where Byrne hears Nature apologize "for those who tumble in / God's name / to an early grave / into the sea and foam / like ships tossed in a storm," there's still joy abounding nevertheless:
The day we raised that roof up high
Unto the fading light
We sang the whole night through
& no one needed proof
& I could see the moon
out by the lighthouse.
This is the emotional tenor of much of the album (save for "I Feel My Stuff," which is fragmented both musically and lyrically and perhaps the hardest song of the album to get into—but which may be standing in contrast to the fluidity and gentleness of most of the rest of the album, as an example of the chaos to which we are all subjected and to which we all must react in one way or another [and to which Byrne seems to have elected to respond with equanimity]): we are here, things happen—sometimes good things, sometimes bad things—but we are here nonetheless, and that's pretty great. Hallelujah.
Musically, this album is incredible. Both Eno and Byrne remain masters of their craft and have recorded an album that's both accessible and unique, pulling on Byrne's lyrical and melodic talents and Eno's ear for exquisite production value. The sound of this album is as deep and nuanced as the lyrics—half a dozen listens and I still haven't discovered all of the layers to the production. Beyond this, it's just good music. Let me put it to you this way: the first track I heard off this album was "Strange Overtones." In the first ten seconds of the song, I was assured of its brilliance—it's easily among the best songs either man has produced and is one of my favorite tracks of 2008. As the resident podcaster for OnlineRock, I spend a lot of time listening to music of varying degrees of quality to find the material for each podcast. I mean no slight to younger bands and performers (they are young yet and have time to aspire to the greatness of these two, and many may yet), but it was an absolute joy to know immediately and without equivocation that I was listening to something objectively (or as close as we can get to "objectively") good. The song grabs you by the ears and doesn't let go. And while certainly the entire album is not made up of such songs, there are a few more that come close ("Life Is Long," "My Big Nurse," "Wanted for Life," and "One Fine Day), and that's pretty great too.
A self-released venture, the entire album is available to stream for free online at http://www.everythingthathappens.com. This is a gift from David and Brian direct to the world and an affirmation of how great it is to need one another:
In the music you are playing
We're not alone
It is strong and you are tough
But a heart is not enough—
In such times as ours, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today affirms the best of us, even when things are at their worst.
Favorite Track: "Strange Overtones"