David Byrne and Brian Eno- Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Album Review)
Towards the end of David Byrne’s sleevenotes for the recent reissue of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts – the album the former Talking Heads singer made with the band’s producer and mentor, Brian Eno, in 1981 – he describes the duo encountering a novel problem. The vocals on the album had been taken from Arabic pop singles, ethnographic recordings and late-night talk-shows and evangelists’ sermons they had taped from the radio. Now they had to get permission to use them, which proved to be an arduous task.
“No one knew what the hell we were doing,” recalled Byrne. “The record sat on the shelf while the phone calls and faxes went back and forth.” Some people refused to give their consent, which meant that tracks had to be changed. The album’s release was postponed by a year. If the duo hadn’t actually invented sampling – you could argue long into the night about whether innumerable earlier experiments with tape loops count – they certainly seem to have invented the idea of sample clearance.
It’s perhaps pushing it to say that Byrne and Eno inadvertently changed the face of popular music with that album, but not much: whatever Steve Reich and Stockhausen got up to in the 60s, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ combination of jittery dub, Fela Kuti-influenced funk and borrowed voices sounds like the direct precursor to sampling as it has come to be known. So it’s hard to stop a certain weight of expectation hanging heavy over the duo’s first joint-effort in 27 years. Eno notes that their intentions in making Everything That Happens Will Happen Today were “quite different” – for one thing, it’s a collection of what Byrne described as “proper songs”, with Eno providing the music and Byrne the vocals and lyrics – but neither party has lost the capacity for the kind of unprecedented blue-sky thinking that fuelled their previous collaboration’s most groundbreaking aspects. This is, after all, a collaboration between the Liberal Democrats’ freshly-appointed adviser on youth affairs, aged 60, and a man who recently curated an event at which a choir of geriatrics performed a cover of Queen’s Bicycle Race, and who designed a chair that looks like it has a Mohican haircut.
Eno has described one track, I Feel My Stuff, as “unlike any other song I’ve ever heard before”, which suggests, a little improbably, that he has never heard any trip-hop. That’s not to say that I Feel My Stuff isn’t a good song, one that shifts constantly and intriguingly over six and a half minutes, from fluttering abstract piano and shuffling breakbeats made up of vocal samples, via a feedback-heavy guitar solo to a rather proggy final riff. It’s just to suggest that anyone hoping for ground to be broken once more might consider gently downscaling their expectations. If they do, they’ll find plenty to like about this album, which seems to be less about venturing boldly forth into the unknown than retreating gently into a less complicated and troubled past.
The primary influences on the songs are gospel and country (Byrne even starts yodelling towards the end of Life Is Long, perhaps the one moment on the album that you could describe as genuinely startling) albeit gospel and country given a characteristically strange shimmer by Eno’s arrangements. The gentle acoustic strum of My Big Nurse ends with a weird solo that seems to be part organ, part feedback; the rhythm track on Home becomes gradually drowned in reverb and other electronic effects. The lyrics may be haunted by the Iraq war, but the tone is weirdly upbeat, much given to looking on the bright side and making the best of it. “We can use these storms to guide the way – this is not my fault,” offers Byrne on the lovely One Fine Day.
Ironically, the record ETHWHT most resembles is not My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, nor any one of the three hugely ambitious albums Talking Heads made with Eno behind the production desk. It is most reminiscent of Little Creatures, the lunge for the pop mainstream they recorded long after their collaboration with Eno had ended. You could view that as a disappointment, or perhaps a rather modest achievement in light of Byrne and Eno being in the studio together, but you’d be hard-pushed to deny the affecting warmth of these songs. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today may be an album of subtle pleasures, but they are pleasures all the same.