[Review] Laurie Anderson: Big Science (1982)

Based on her United States cycle, this is the record that put Laurie Anderson on the map.

Kronomyth 1.0: She blinded me with Big Science.

This is luminous stuff. It all started with the United States tour, performance art that featured Laurie Anderson playing the violin on a block of ice. It was this kind of absurdist attitude that also made her plainspoken songs so unforgettable. Big Science condenses 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 a bigger reaction than raised eyebrows. She wants you to rethink music, or at least think about music more deeply. 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.

Original elpee version

A1. From The Air (4:29)
A2. Big Science (6:14)
A3. Sweaters (2:18)
A4. Walking & Falling (2:10)
A5. Born, Never Asked (4:56)
B1. O Superman (For Massenet) (8:21)
B2. Example #22 (2:59)
B3. Let X=X/It Tango (6:52)

All words & music by Laurie Anderson

The Players

Laurie Anderson (vocals, vocoder, violins, Farsifa, OBXa, percussion, electronics, sticks, keyboards, claps, whistling, marimba), Roma Baran (Farsifa bass, glass harmonica, sticks, claps, Farsifa, Casio, accordion, whistling), Perry Hoberman (bottles, sticks, claps, flute, sax, piccolo, backup vocals), David Van Tieghem (drums, roto toms, tympani, marimba, percussion) with Richard Cohen (B-flat & E-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoon, bari sax on B2), Chuck Fosher (alto & tenor sax on B2), Peter Gordon (clarinet & tenor sax on A1), Rufus Harley (bagpipes on A3), George Lewis (trombones on B3), Bill Obrecht (alto sax on A1), Leanne Ungar (backup vocals on B2). Produced by Laurie Anderson & Roma Baran; engineered by Leanne Ungar; technical consulting & systems design by Bob Bielecki.

The Pictures

Front cover photo by Greg Shifrin; back cover photo by James Hamilton. Design by Cindy Brown.

The Plastic

Released on elpee and cassette in May 1982* in the US (Warner Bros., BSK/M5 3674), the UK (Warner Bros., K57002), Brazil (Warner Bros., 26081), Canada (XBS/XM5 3574), Germany (Warner Bros., WB57002) and Japan (Warner/Pioneer, P-11192) with lyric sleeve. Reached #124 on the US charts and #29 on the UK charts. (*First appeared in 05/15/82 issue of Billboard.)

  1. Re-issued on compact disc in 1984 in the US (Warner Bros., 3674-2), Europe (WEA, 257 002) and Japan (Warner Bros., 32XP-160) [made in West Germany].
  2. Re-released on remastered compact disc on June 18, 2007 in the US (Nonesuch, 130428-2).

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