Kronomyth 1.0: EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC. Luminous stuff. Laurie Anderson made her reputation as a performance artist with the United States tour, which featured her playing the violin on a block of ice. It was that kind of absurdist attitude that made her plainspoken songs so unforgettable. Big Science featured material from the United States performance, including the surprise UK hit “O Superman.” The songs are minimalist dialogues that shine like the short ambient pieces of Brian Eno. Sometimes they feature actual melodies, like the wonderfully catchy “From The Air,” and sometimes there’s just a wisp of sound behind them, as on “Walking & Falling.” Looking for a reference point for Laurie Anderson is tricky; there are elements of David Byrne, Kate Bush, Philip Glass and Stan Ridgway at work, but they all arrived at their styles at about the same time. Her later albums were too self-aware of expectations; Big Science blazes into new musical frontiers fearlessly. To call songs like “Example #22” strange sort of misses the point, since Anderson is after bigger quarry than raised eyebrows. She wants you to rethink music, or at least think about music more deeply than usual. The lyrics are often spoken rather than sung, and they hang heavy in the air. Behind the lyrics are slowly shifting waves of keyboards, marimba or violin, and the unpredictable percussion of David Van Tieghem. When it all comes together, Big Science is stunning. When it doesn’t, it’s still thought provoking. Her manipulation of everyday events, her timing, her ability to drop words will have you scratching your head and smiling. She’s not a musician, she’s a magician. You’ll wonder whether you’ve been duped by Big Science, but it’s done so skillfully you’ll admire the effort, maybe even feel flattered by it.
Kronomyth 2.0: THE GREAT COMMISSION. In my middle doughy age, prior to the proper dotage that awaits me, I mused that Laurie Anderson plus a backing band of alternative rock stars equalled pure left-handed Heaven, an observation occasioned no doubt by Mister Heartbreak’s stylish handshake, “Sharkey’s Day.” After that handshake, however, Anderson returns to the haunts of her earlier work, mixing minimalist accompaniment with all the warmth of a low-wattage lightbulb and words like shadows, weightless and ominous. “Langue d’Amour” and “Blue Lagoon” favor the primitive, powerful style of her earlier work. “Gravity’s Angel” sounds like it was deconstructed and reconstructed with the wrong parts, which is what a lot of Bill Laswell’s music feels like to me. “Kokoku” is a collaboration with kayagum artist Sang Won Park, who had recently emigrated to New York City and insinuated himself with the avant-garde elite. The album’s second collaboration, “Excellent Birds,” is the most boring thing on here. It’s a case of Peter Gabriel appropriating Anderson’s art for his own designs, with her consent I’m sure, but birds of a feather they’re not. The album closes with Anderson doing Burroughs doing himself on “Sharkey’s Night.”
O Superman, where art thou?
“O Superman” is a miracle of music. The trouble with miracles is that they cease to be miracles the second time around. You’ve seen it happen once, so you know it can happen again. Eventually, the miraculous act becomes a matter of fact. There are some miraculous moments on Mister Heartbreak, but they seem like minor epiphanies in the shadow of Big Science. Maybe the biggest epiphanies are that Laurie Anderson can rock and roll and sing. But the album doesn’t achieve anything musically that Talking Heads didn’t already achieve on Remain In Light. Their excellencies Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel? Lol Creme and Kevin Godley bested them by a few years on Ismism’s “Ready For Ralph.” Mister Heartbreak is a very smart album made by a very smart lady who had attracted a coterie of high-profile admirers and the cachet to make the art she wanted on a big budget. It’s not a breakthrough moment, it’s not a standing in place, it’s a plain commission with a song about birds.
Kronomyth 4.0: STOP MAKING DANCE. The first sunflower we see from Van Gogh is a revelation. By the third or fourth sunflower, they start to look like sunflowers and lose their alienage. This, Laurie’s fourth sunflower, was conceived as part of a staged performance. I saw it on television and it left me nonplussed, but I’m not the artiest animal on the ark either. Talking Heads had brought music to the stage with Stop Making Sense and Byrne’s collaboration with Twyla Tharp, The Catherine Wheel. That Anderson was now using some of the same musicians as the Heads (Adrian Belew, Dolette McDonald) made the David Byrne connection clearer. Byrne is more musical than Anderson, Anderson more verbal than Byrne, but their artistic sensibilities align nicely so that fans of the one should appreciate the other. Home of the Brave (the album) is even more musical than her last album, Mister Heartbreak. It’s still nontraditional rock music, but that I’m even calling it rock music is a leap forward. However, I’m not so much interested in what she has to play as what she has to say. The opening “Smoke Rings” (shades of Sylvia Plath) and “White Lily” are pure poetry, for my money the best things about Home of the Brave. “Talk Normal” to me seems incidental, “Sharkey’s Night” (different from the version on Heartbreak) noisy and indulgent. And the single from the album, “Language is a Virus,” lacks the subtlety that I most admire in her music. However, Home of the Brave isn’t after subtlety; it’s in your face, over the top, an intellectual circus. I came here looking for sunflowers, and found only a lone white lily alienated by noisome weeds of the unconscious. Any Laurie Anderson album has its share of revelations, but this may claim the smallest share.
Kronomyth 5.0: POP ART. Laurie sings! And the world doesn’t end. Maybe some pigs flew, I don’t know. They probably needed the exercise anyway. By most accounts, the result was a revelation: a very musical album from an “antimusical” musician. But to contradict the opening title track, it’s exactly like I thought it would be. Strange Angels isn’t that much different from Mister Heartbreak after all. It’s chatty, smart, funny. Groundbreaking? Not really. Peter Gabriel brought African music into the digital age on Security and So, David Byrne took it to South America several times, and Laurie Anderson retraces their footsteps on Strange Angels. The difference is that Laurie is the better listener, internally and externally. She stumbles on big truths and little epiphanies, wraps them here in jewel-encrusted boxes and dazzled a whole lot of people with the offering. Throw away the box, though, and it’s another “Langue d’Amour” or “From The Air.” What I think attracts people to Strange Angels is the musical packaging. It’s by the far the prettiest record she’s made, and thus the most charming. “Babydoll” and “My Eyes” are seductive pop songs; complicated under the surface, sure, but for the first time Laurie is giving audiences the opportunity to opt out of the social study and simply enjoy the music. Yet it’s when audiences enjoy the album on both levels (surface and substance) that Strange Angels weaves its best magic. I got as much of a kick out of her earlier music (Big Science, Mister Heartbreak), and can find the beauty in ugliness just as easily, so for me Strange Angels is simply the same wonderful gift wrapped in different paper. It’s lovely paper, shiny and colorful, so you may want to unwrap it first.
Kronomyth 8.0: DOUBLE TALK. A nicely packaged, remastered double-disc anthology of Laurie Anderson’s first seven releases. That said, I’m not really sure Talk Normal has a purpose. If you enjoy her music, you already own a few of her records, which means you already own a good half of this collection. Maybe not in remastered form, maybe not United States Live, maybe without the pretty pictures, but no surprises await you here except the single edit of “Sharkey’s Day.” Personally, I would have liked to see Rhino open this up to include some of her outside work (Lou Reed, Jean-Michel Jarre) or earlier poetry. A new song, unreleased stuff (such as the music from Home of the Brave that didn’t make the soundtrack) or even collected live performances would have been a kindness to collectors too. Instead, Talk Normal stays within the boundaries of her well-known Warner Bros. works, which is predictable and (Dare I say it? Yes, dare, dare!) dull. From Big Science to Ugly Jewels, it’s been an interesting ride, and Talk Normal hits all the familiar bumps: “O Superman,” “From The Air,” “Excellent Birds,” “Babydoll,” “In Our Sleep.” Yet I’d trade it all for a remastered version of Big Science with a few bonus tracks. The trouble with Talk Normal (and Anderson’s career in general) is that nothing since has equalled the shock of “O Superman.” To encounter that song is to imagine what a neon light would look like to primitive man: alien, luminous, supersentient. There have been a host of entertaining and absurd observations over her career, musical boundaries stretched slightly, realities challenged, but nothing on Talk Normal bespeaks the artist so well as that first track. For that reason, this could have been pared down to a single disc and still delivered the same powerful message. Maybe with time a double-disc anthology that collects the Warner Bros. and Nonesuch years will be prepared, repackaged, augmented with a few tantalizing extras (or even a bonus DVD of videos and performances). Then, we’ll have something to talk about.