Laurie Anderson’s O Superman, her first, most famous and, indeed, only hit, was released in 1981, when Reagan had just swept to power and the American Empire was reaching something like its zenith, with the Cold War entering its final phases. Twenty-nine years later, and on Homeland Anderson seems fairly certain she’s bearing witness to that crumbing, deluded and debt-ridden Empire’s end.
That may sound a somewhat portentous subject, but in fact Anderson’s whimsical sense of humour remains a constant, at times a little wearingly so. Then again, if you are essentially releasing an album about the credit crunch, it’s probably best to try and sneak some chuckles in there. Certainly Homeland’s catchiest track, the chattering techno pop of Only an Expert, succeeds as a brilliantly vicious satire of the hollowing out of the American Dream, managing to find a through thread between the Iraq War, the bail out of the US banks and the empty wisdom of Oprah Winfrey.
However, the album really does come into its own when Anderson allows herself to hit a more sombre note. Certainly the latter portions of the 11-and-a-half minute, pitch-shifted tour de force Another Day in America are extraordinary. Over a wraithlike keyboard figure, wreathed in wordless backing wails (courtesy of Antony Hegarty), ambient hiss, dissonant strings and trembles of keyboard she bids farewell to the junk and the glory of the 20th century, questioning “how do we begin again?”, intoning, yearning, that “the reason I really love the stars, is that we cannot hurt them”, before concluding, ominously: “but we are reaching for them”.
To some extent Only an Expert and Another Day in America dominate Homeland to the point of slightly unbalancing it, the first catchy and pugnacious, the other epic and quotable. Yet the rest of the tracks don’t really try and compete: elsewhere Homeland offers a more textural journey, populated by squalls of free jazz, melancholic knots of electronica, uncomfortable pauses and low, distorted vocals. There are still witticisms aplenty, but the overall effect is an air of creeping dread, the perfect soundtrack for a journey into America’s night.