“Wanna Define? So Say So!”: David Bryne’s Utopia

David Byrne. American Utopia. Nonesuch Records, 2018.


“There was a time before we were born. If someone asks, this is where I’ll be, where I’ll be” – David Byrne, “This Must Be the Place”, 1984.

Two works sit before me. One, a non-descript jet-black Verso book, containing a controversial and often misunderstood thought experiment from the dialectical philosopher Frederic Jameson. The other is a record album by the great humanist songwriter David Byrne. Both are titled American Utopia. Both attempt to find countertendencies in the social whole in the 21st century, “late-late capitalism”, if you will, countertendencies that perhaps we can cognitively map, if not concretely perceive as utopian, as going beyond the semblance of time and place, a place where nothing ever happens, as “happening” implies going back to the dualism of fact and value that dialectical art and philosophy attempt to transcend. Byrne’s music, both literally and figuratively, provides a soundtrack to what Jameson called postmodernity – a concept about which one can hold agnosticism with regards to hard periodization, but still use to demarcate an aesthetic sensibility.  

In a sense, the foundational musical figure of the Jamesonian idea of postmodern cultural production is Brian Eno, whose work is as foundational for David Byrne as, one may say, Ludwig Feuerbach for Karl Marx. Eno was in perhaps the first postmodern rock band, Roxy Music, led by Bryan Ferry – whose phrasing is exceptionally similar to Byrne’s, and to the delivery Eno encouraged from David Bowie on his “German” albums. While Ferry was no slouch on the keyboards in a standard sense, Eno’s role was credited as “synthesizers and tapes”. Eno would create loops on the fly, providing drones and odd, theraminesque textures on what on the surface may seem like standard art-pop, exemplified in Roxy’s classic early single, “Virginia Plain”. After leaving Roxy Music on amicable terms, Eno, with some degree of credibility did important work demystifying the notion of music as parcellized time with his early ambient music, traversing the boundary of tonal and atonal by merely creating, with nascent synthesizers, temporally bound sound tapestries, both alone and with the guitarist Robert Fripp. These tapestries of sound, a practice Eno maintains to this day, succeeded where previous “experimentation” by rock musicians (notably Paul McCartney and George Harrison’s side projects) had failed, insofar as he was able to develop a cult audience around what at first listen may have seemed merely to be, well, just… sound. 

 Concurrently, in a more standard ‘rock’ vein, Eno, for all intents and purposes, invented a whole new style of music, informed by world culture and the sense of rupture from the long sixties, either on his first few ‘band’ albums (replete with the drumming of Phil Collins), his work with Bowie and finally his work with Byrne and Talking Heads. While influencing imitators from Daniel Lanois to Dave Friedmann, Eno’s sonic ideas were sui generis, cerebral but so full of nooks and crannies that one often is unaware of what one has just heard until a second or third session of active listening. Eno is the missing link in the rupture of the ‘sixties form’ in music, playing in a band taken by some as Glam and others as Prog, leaving but maintaining a sort of spiritual relationship by way of his continued work with Manzanera. He produced Genesis’s Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, debuting his ‘sound sculpures’, and as a significant impact on the recording of percussion, in particular gated reverberation. He worked with the likes of Mike (Tubular Bells) Oldfield, even. But then he found a kindred spirit in David Byrne.

“The smaller things in life.” These are some of those words-of-wisdom one finds in a public school staffroom wall poster with a kitty cat. But it is in these smaller things in life, these temporally specific moments of disalienation that we find what Jameson, referencing the work of Kevin Lynch, called “the practical reconquest of a sense of place and the construction or reconstruction of an articulated ensemble which can be retained in memory and which the individual subject can map and remap along the moments of mobile, alternative trajectories”.1  No songwriter has examined the utopia of smaller things more effectively than David Byrne, both with Talking Heads and over the course of an uneven but often satisfying solo career. “My building has every convenience”, he sings on “Don’t Worry About the Government”, sung alongside paeans to public sector workers redolent of the best popular front musicals. Later, in the afterlife, heaven is a bar in which the narrator’s favorite song is repeatedly played, and they can’t imagine ever having had so much fun, nothing happens, it’s just fun all the time, like Big Rock Candy Mountain. Or in the spatial-temporal mixed metaphors of “This Must Be The Place”, Byrne tells us “There was a time, before we were born. If someone asks this is where I’ll be, where I’ll be.” Where I’ll be.

This sense of a reality beyond space and time, being akin to the time spent before subject-formation, where “nothing ever happens,” is also akin to what Eno had attempted with his sound sculptures. It is, in other words, something yet-to-be cognitively mapped. Its mapping, in a sense, is the act of the reception of the creation. And this space is accompanied by Byrne and Eno’s attempts to make sense of the rupture that we now know as neoliberalism, the defeat of the New Left, the end of the Long Sixties. “Psycho Killer”, from the first Talking Heads record (’77) before Eno arrived, is on one level a throwaway, dependent as much on its sound as its lyrics out of context. Like all of Byrne’s work, the lyrics – even the “fa-fa-fa’s” – could not make any sense without being able to hear the song in one’s head, to map it. On another level, it, the Eno-adorned “Life During Wartime” evokes a paranoia, a disintegration of the old self and a lack of awareness as to what would constitute the new self, the new subject of postmodernity. This vision finally came to fruition on what is widely and justifiably seen to be Talking Heads’ masterpiece and their last record with Eno, Remain in Light.

There are few other 40-odd minute works of art in the age of mechanical reproduction that can even compare to Remain in Light. It is a ‘concept album’, but not in the old prog sense. Rather, it is the fruition of Byrne and Eno’s artistic project. That is to say, attempts to succeed it always tail behind it. Beginning with “Born Under Punches”, our narrator discovers and perceives his hands – “hands of a government man”. He is cloistered, alienated, and this is adorned with groove music that features very few, if any, chord changes, just deep vamping and complex vocal arrangement. This is the discovery of the new self, the government man, as, in this aesthetic universe, we are all government men, born under punches. Then we arrive at “Cross-eyed and Painless” in which our narrator is starting to discover the world around him, beyond his hands, beyond the “island of doubt” but he is waiting for something, something he has yet to find. And suddenly, so as to denote the cultural shift, the shift in sensibility, we get a rap, based partially on Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks”.

Facts are simple and facts are straight

Facts are lazy and facts are late

Facts all come with points of view

Facts don’t do what I want them to

Facts just twist the truth around

Facts are living turned inside out

Facts are getting the best of them

Facts are nothing on the face of things

And with this Byrne and Eno introduce their ontology of the present in a sense that cannot be merely read off of paper. At the very least, they should be recited. This is not the “pomo” rejection of “facticity”, this is discovery of the malleability of truth and the importance of how truth or “knowledges” are represented and reproduced within capitalism. This path is pursued through the rest of side 1, with “The Great Curve”, a celebratory, Fela Kuti informed integration of this new subjectivity, in which if one wants to define, so say so, so say so. Then we arrive at the full adaptation to this new mode, on a song that not accidentally became Talking Heads’ biggest single and most iconic music video, “Once in a Lifetime”.  A surface reading of this song may have it as either a series of non-sequiturs or making fun of yuppies, yet the full-fledged “yuppie” subject did not exist in 1979/80 when this album was being written and recorded. Byrne makes the point that “We operate half-awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here?’”. And that is the point, the song. Byrne’s music, for the rest of Remain in Light and subsequently as well, would attempt to explore and even answer, but not in a discursive sense: Who am I? Where did I come from? How did I get here?  

* * *

Thus we have the post-Byrne Talking Heads, becoming, through the early to mid eighties, predominantly a live band, yet one that released barn-burning (if not quite as serious) rock albums, notably Speaking In Tongues, exploring utopia, dystopia and all points in between. They both created the eighties and aesthetically subjected them to immanent critique in songs like “Girlfriend is Better”. They collaborated with Jonathan Demme on a film that perhaps more than other shows the concrete, sensual labour process involved in creating a live music spectacle, Stop Making Sense. Even on their later records, they recorded a sly dig at primitivist throw-your-hands-up responses to ecological degradation with “Nothing But Flowers”, in which what was once a Pizza Hut is now covered in flowers and daisies, and our narrator, perhaps the one who took a look at his government hands, misses Dairy Queen and 7-11. 

 Talking Heads disintegrated for a variety of contending reasons but did so in a sense that they never became satires of themselves. Byrne put out several above-average solo albums but concentrated much of his energy over the last 30 years, along with fellow Eno collaborator and progressive, Peter Gabriel, to popularizing a global music culture; “world music” as it was called, but not in an exploitive sense. In a simple sense, he was helping kick-ass African music gain an entry into the US market, as opposed to exploiting them for optics while breaking anti-Apartheid BDS like Paul Simon. He worked with J.P Barlow and championed cybernetics and the early digital utopias, as was to be expected. Responding to rumours, Byrne came out as being on the autism spectrum in 2009, but claimed, with some justification, that he had worked through it with his art, that to him it was not a “disorder”.  Most recently, he did a fun one-off record with the hipster favorite St. Vincent, a record where he finally, for the first time arguably since early Talking Heads, showed what a great vocalist he was. But it was essentially a throwaway.

And hence back to the two objects sitting in front of me, the David Byrne record and the Jameson book. As the saying goes, both are “better live”.  The Jameson essay, as is well-known among the far-left at this point, speculates that the US military could be an institution of dual power. Examining some of the peculiarities of US military life, its relative egalitarianism, its communal living, its diversity, Jameson provokes with a purpose. Yet on paper, the provocation is missing what was key about this thought experiment insofar as it was presented as a lecture, dependent equally upon Jameson’s performative gestures, his segues from jargon to matter-of-fact, his dialectic of effusion and monotone. Thus, it can – and has been – misread as an actual political program. What comes off “live” on YouTube is a theorist at the top of his game, delivering that rare lecture that when reproduced on paper seem to remove a vital context.

The issue with the Byrne record is simpler. These are great songs but, quite unlike other work he has done with Eno, do not form a coherent whole per se.  One can speculate to an extent that they have nothing left to say, that they “said it all” nearly forty years ago. But this is not necessarily the case, as some of Byrne’s live performances of these songs have been nothing short of dynamite. What is actually most impressive about the album, not unexpectedly, is its sound. Byrne’s utterly unique, percussive rhythm guitar; the beats from XX producer Rodaidh McDonald as well complimenting a full-on Eno-ian aural pleasure. The single, “Everybody’s Coming to My House” is vintage playful David Byrne, even better live, a repeat of Byrne’s cheeky dialectical inversions as on “Nothing But Flowers”. 

Yet Byrne and Eno are trying to hard to recapture something that has passed them by, and perhaps don’t have the handle on the world around them than they once did. Certainly long-time peace activist and BDS proponent Brian Eno has a concrete analysis of the world around him, as shown in his prolific essays. But Byrne is all over the map and this is reflected by an album that has no coherence but “trying to sound like early Talking Heads”, so to speak. Pitchfork’s Evan Rytlewski is apropos in making the point that Byrne sounds “like a stoned teenager staring at the clouds and spit-balling deep thoughts about the universe.” But as is often the case with Pitchforkian snark, this begs the question, what is wrong with a stoned teenager staring at the clouds? Indeed, perhaps Rytlewski is forgetting one of the main storylines of Byrne’s disjointed but charming film True Stories has this this as part of its storyline, as does the late Talking Heads classic “And She Was”.  There can be something beautifully profane and utopian about the transgressive gesticulations of a stoned teenager. This was actually always Byrne’s charm, the narrator of the unconscious as opposed to either a balladeer or poet.

The issue here is not how Byrne is coming off. It is also too simple to say that it is dated. Byrne and Eno are making a major effort at contributing to today’s cultural ecosystem, as much a conscious statement, in a sense, as their work between 1978 and 1980. Yet if we can conceive and periodize the era of high Talking Heads glory as that of postmodernity, the question then remains: Can the same project play the same role in Trump’s America?  Can the turn away from lyrical didacticism to sonic pedagogy be an effective protest when the heirs of Eno dominate today’s art-rock, from Tame Impala to LCD Soundsystem? Byrne and Eno have both been clear that this project is many things, but one of them is a direct intervention, not so much a protest but a commentary. And as such, it misses the mark. Instead of illuminating, it merely satisfies. It is one of those records that you put on the first time and swear you will listen to it repeatedly, but then struggle to return to it for a reminder when writing a review. It’s like an album of pretty good Talking Heads outtakes, remixed with 2018 studio techniques. Better by a longshot than most of the music out there these days, but in no sense at all a utopia.


  1. Jameson, F. (1992), Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, pp 51.

Jordy Cummings has been called a Tin-Pot Beria for the counter-culture. He holds a PhD from York University in Toronto. He is a cultural critic, writer, labour activist, and a member of the Red Wedge editorial collective.