David Byrne is all about cautious optimism these days. Recently, that’s taken the form of an interactive lecture series entitled “Reasons to be Cheerful,” in which Byrne catalogs and champions examples of public policy triumphs large and small from communities around the world. It’s also led to American Utopia, Byrne’s first solo record in 14 years and his artistic reaction to the political and existential fears that radiate daily from the Trump Administration.
In addition to highlighting stories of Paris’ groundbreaking bike-share system, Portugal’s successful drug-decriminalization policies, and investments in clean energy happening in a deep-red Texas suburb, the project also stands as the latest involving one of Byrne’s longest-standing fascinations: how to make America (and the lives of Americans) better.
Byrne’s transformation into pop music’s hippest cultural-critic-cum-philosophy-professor wasn’t a given. As Rob Tannenbaum of The New York Times noted in a recent feature, “At the start of his career, when Mr. Byrne was the singer in Talking Heads, fans turned to him for alienation, not hope.“
Breakthrough records like Talking Heads: 77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food introduced listeners to a very different Byrne, one whose eccentric delivery, autobiographical elusiveness, and obsession with the mundanities of everyday life, allowed him to slip into the role of the bewildered outsider, one who found himself equal parts frustrated and fascinated by the customs of the world where he loved to visit but didn’t want to live.
The songs that made Byrne and the Talking Heads famous during these years dealt directly with this disorientation; their most famous single is anchored by Byrne literally asking, “How did I get here?” On those early records, everything was a possible threat: love was an impossible riddle (“I’m Not in Love”), paradise was a boring trick (“Heaven”), and the comforts of modern society led nowhere but brain death (“Don’t Worry About the Government”). Redemption, when it came at all, did so through art and self-expression, and other people’s problems were theirs alone to solve (“No Compassion”).
However, that kind of paranoid post-punk Byrne wouldn’t remain an impartial (and overly anxious) observer for long. By the mid-’80s, his artistic and lyrical concerns would undergo an evolution and expansion that still informs his work today. As we approach Byrne’s latest reckoning with American culture, it feels important to revisit the place where that reckoning began in earnest.
Perhaps the best document to capture the turning point in Byrne’s innate sense of apartness isn’t an album but a film. Released in 1986, True Stories took Byrne from New York to Texas for his first foray in moviemaking. Taking cues from Errol Morris’ oddball documentary Vernon, Florida, the film explores the inner lives and outer quirks of residents from the fictional town of Virgil, where microchip manufacturer Vericorp is king and the sesquicentennial “Celebration of Specialness” is imminent.
As the film’s nameless narrator and tour guide (as well as its writer and director), Byrne blows into town in a red Chrysler convertible and soon finds himself palling around with all sorts of weirdos, from a woman who refuses to leave her bed and her voodoo-practicing butler to Louis Fyne, a Vericorp employee so desperate to find a wife that he records a television commercial complete with hotline number. In between these meetups, viewers are treated to interludes inspired by the mundane settings of high capitalism; everyday people stage an absurdist mall fashion show set to the haunting “Dream Operator”, a field sobriety test turns into a balletic movement piece, and a nameless security guard sings an operatic solo to no one on the half-built stage he’s tasked with protecting.
Had True Stories been made by Byrne in the ’70s, its promo inspiration (in, what else, an interview with himself, Byrne described his movie as “a project with songs based on true stories from tabloid newspapers” and “60 Minutes on acid”) might’ve resulted in another scathing takedown of quotidian suburban living. After all, this was the same guy who, on More Songs About Buildings and Food standout “The Big Country”, reacted to the everyday goings-on of flyover country with a dismissive “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.”
Eight years later, things were different. Far from being a backhanded compliment, the film’s “Celebration of Specialness” actually feels like, well, a celebration. True Stories goes out of its way to express the (sometimes conflicted) positives at the heart of even the most nondescript town. There are rich inner lives inside each of the Vericorp drones (especially Fyne, whose quest for love is played out with circus-bear sympathy by John Goodman). The mall combines the town square with air conditioning. The prefab metal buildings that line the outskirts of town represent economic growth rather than unchecked sprawl. “Who can say it isn’t beautiful?” Byrne asks over a shot of an unfinished subdivision, thinking more of the lives about to unfold in each empty room rather than the cul-de-sacs on the edge of scrubland.
Most of these cues come from Byrne’s narrator who, instead of collapsing from the tension of being an outsider, replaces ironic distance or jaded worry with curious acceptance. He may not believe that “economics has become a spiritual thing” or that freeways are “the cathedrals of our time,” but he can understand the people who do.
True Stories was a polarizing part of the Talking Heads canon from the beginning. Critics were wary of this newfound sincerity; though Roger Ebert praised the film for its “wonderment” and “bold attempt to paint a bizarre American landscape,” others, like New York Magazine’s David Denby, dismissed it for its “bland, floating facetiousness.” The soundtrack bombed, too; originally intended to feature songs as they were performed by the movie’s actors, the record instead delivered (allegedly) more bankable Talking Heads versions that found the once-transcendent band, as Ira Robbins of Trouser Press put it, “slumming in the mundane world of tunesmiths and working musicians.“
With the benefits of hindsight, it’s safe to say that the critical and commercial legacies of True Stories matter less than what it reveals about Byrne’s subsequent artistic and academic work. The movie (and accompanying record and book) signaled the final end of frustration, cynicism, and isolation as the dominant motifs of Byrne’s work. In their place, we find the codification of the themes and concerns that would continually reoccur over the course of the next 32 years: the search for meaning outside oneself (1994’s “Angels”), the belief in the possibility of connection between two people (2008’s Eno collaboration “Strange Overtones”), and the continued assertion that, for all of its faults, America is actually worth it (1997’s “Miss America”).
Perhaps most importantly, True Stories also marks the full emergence of Byrne’s ability to approach frightening existential questions on both a geological and subatomic scale. The film opens with a history lesson, in which Byrne traces the lifespan of the land that is now Texas from the time of the dinosaurs to the decimation of the native Americans to the oil and technology booms of the 20th century. The film’s closing sequence bookends this scene-setting with “City of Dreams”, in which Byrne recaps the same history with an implied caution: We’re only here for the middle of the story. Texas is temporary. Cherish it, before you go the way of the stegosaurus yourself.
In his 1986 review of the True Stories album, SPIN critic Chris Carroll identified these new mellower concerns as Byrne “aging happily” and “coming to terms with the things that made you angry just a few years ago.” Whether he’s mitigating the pain of a dissolving relationship by breaking things down to their constituent parts (2004’s elegiac “Glass, Concrete, and Stone”) or putting listeners at peace with their (infinitesimally small) place in the universe (1997’s “Finite=Alright”), Byrne finds comfort through perspective and, as Ebert said, a whole lot of wonderment. He captures those sentiments best on his newest single (“Everybody’s Coming to My House”): “We’re only tourists in this life/ Only tourists but the view is nice.“
These ideas, and the songs they would inspire, helped Byrne transition from the jittery loner of his band’s earliest record into what he is now: an almost-spiritual guide offering solace and navigation through the isolation and despair of life as we live it. No wonder he named the town Virgil.
Of course, like any artistic evolution, this switch in perspective wasn’t without its downsides. It made Byrne’s work more open-handed and accessible, but also less urgent. Its concerns with mitigating interior dread and finding joy in the everyday also operate from a position of relative privilege and, for many facing far more tangible threats to their existence, don’t always feel like a priority.
However. In a political climate where uncertainty is the rule and not the exception, it’s still comforting to know that David Byrne is out there somewhere, riding his bike and dreaming up new ways to help us understand ourselves.
Some days, that’s the only reason to be cheerful that we need.