This is the final in a series of three columns, collectively titled Byrnanza, about the work of the musical genius David Byrne over the past thirty years.
For his latest trick, David Byrne has eschewed “world music rhythms,” preferring instead to go with DANCE DANCE DISCO PEOPLE POWER REVOLUTION. That’s right – Here Lies Love, a double-album release, is a disco-beat concept album framed around the life of Imelda Marcos and her time as First Lady of the Philippines. On top of that, there are nineteen female star vocalists, each performing as Marcos or as Estrella Cumpos, her childhood nanny.
The result is a sprawling, thumping, Studio 54-tribute to a woman who is frequently talked about, but very infrequently given a voice. Imelda Romualdez, crowned the “Rose of Tacloban” in a beauty pageant at age 18, married Ferdinand Marcos at 25 and spent the next thirty years in various positions of power in his authoritarian government. In 1986, she and her family fled the Philippines as the People Power revolution toppled Marcos’ regime. In 1990, a year after her husband’s death, she was acquitted of racketeering charges in an American court. Today she is a Congresswoman in the Philippines, this time by democratic election. Despite all this, however, in the West she is most famous for the shoe collection she left behind when fleeing to exile. (My father, still, will call me “Imelda” whenever I buy a pair of heels.)
Byrne describes the process of the album’s germination:
First, I read this book by a Polish writer named Ryszard Kapuscinski called The Emperor, about Haile Selassie. He interviewed members of Selassie’s court after the fall of the regime, and it painted this picture of the world inside a dictator’s court, which was a very surreal place. I thought, “Well, this is very theatrical, and artificial, this little universe that gets created inside these places.” And then more recently I read something about Imelda going to Studio 54, and having a New York townhouse, and it’s like, “Wow, here’s somebody in power that comes with their own soundtrack. This is the soundtrack that they lived by.” …That music – a lot of it is about getting outside of yourself and losing yourself in the club, and the beats, and all that kind of stuff. And I imagine that’s a similar experience to the heady experience of having all this power.
Musically, Here Lies Love combines those disco beats with the Latin rhythms Byrne’s so fond of. Fatboy Slim’s production is evident – while Byrne often seems to prefer a ragged, live-action feel to his studio albums, Slim’s stylized, perfectly synced loops create the perfect backdrop for a woman who had, seemingly, the perfect life. The lyrics often express Imelda’s point of view from a first-person perspective, but others are more subtle, more experimental – “How Are You,” for example, is written entirely with set sentences from an English phrasebook.
What really makes the album stand out, of course, are the vocals – Byrne only sings on two tracks, one tongue-in-cheekly titled “American Troglodyte.” The opening track (also the title track) features Florence Welch, of Florence and the Machine:
Bringing in one woman to sing the parts of Imelda and Estrella would have been a shrewd move. Bringing in nineteen makes the album explode. Each song is tailored to its singer’s strengths: Santigold’s is brassy, Martha Wainwright’s contemplative but with an edge, Sia’s floaty and soft. All these women manage to convey, somehow, the essential pieces of Imelda that the album speaks to: at once a beneficiary and a prisoner of her own physical beauty, a poor girl who married a rich man, a woman baffled by her own unpopularity but unable to see her flaws.
On a double album spanning 22 tracks, there will be some weak points. Cyndi Lauper and Tori Amos, disappointingly, provide the least engaging song (“Why Won’t You Love Me?”), and there are other songs, like “Order 1081” and “Never So Big,” that give the impression they’ve been shoehorned in to complete the story. But when it’s good, man, it’s good. My favourite track, “Please Don’t,” features the amazing Santigold and her lament about the blindness of world leaders – all world leaders – to the plight of their people:
(“Please Don’t” is available for free download from Byrne’s website.
Is this groundbreaking art rock, like Stop Making Sense? Nope. Is it pioneering world music, like My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts? Nope, again. What this is is a joyful, slick, incredible disco-Latin-pop record with a soul.
I’ll leave you with “You’ll Be Taken Care Of,” with Tori Amos on vocals: a haunting, slippery song from the perspective of Imelda’s mother, it hinges on the main themes of the album: power, beauty, and what a woman must do to get along in the world.
All tracks from this album are available to listen on YouTube here: Here Lies Love tracks.. If you like it, buy it.