For fresh, upcoming experimental rock artists, a David Byrne collaboration is the holy grail of musical success. The father of the Talking Heads, Byrne has long been seen as the leader of the music oddballs, the unashamed weirdo that made uncool cool. So it’s no surprise that Annie Clark, better known as fidgety cerebral rocker St. Vincent, was overjoyed by the chance to work with Byrne. “I think I’ve reached the pinnacle of who I want to work with,” she said recently. But after three solid LPs in five years, St. Vincent has become pretty established herself. After leaving The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ touring band to launch her solo career, Clark has charmed fans with her lucid, sparkling voice and curt guitar riffs. In the meantime, David Byrne was working with a host of young bands. He’s written lyrics for Thievery Corporation and Fischerspooner, and sung on tracks by Baby Elephant, N.A.S.A. and Brazilian Girls. 2009’s Dark Was The Night compilation featured bouncy single “Knotty Pine,” which he recorded and wrote with the Dirty Projectors. And on the deluxe edition of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, Byrne contributed some unearthly yelping vocals to the fantastic bonus track “Speaking in Tongues.” In today’s art-rock world, everyone wants to be eccentric uncle David’s new protégé.
But while some of Byrne’s previous collaborations appeared to be kindly favors handed down from his throne on high, Clark and Byrne’s relationship comes off as an equal partnership — and so it should. With Clark’s mercurial guitar ability and Byrne’s musical intellect, Love This Giant welds together two sides of the same experimental coin. Yet the success of this fusion lies not in the pair’s similarities, but in their differences. St. Vincent’s propensity for distorted, anxious compositions yank the album in one direction, while Byrne’s jubilant brass arrangements and never-ending exuberance tug it towards another. Precisely capturing their artistic friction, Love This Giant is deliberately unsettling.
On the opener, “Who,” Byrne’s unmistakable vocals vault over skewed horns and jolting drum beats before Clark comes in on the luminous chorus. As with so many male-female duets, their combination hints at romance and Clark’s innocent questions (“who is an honest man?”) become blatant flirtation. Later, Byrne’s barefaced courtship on “Dinner For Two” hesitates and squirms as he laments “something I should tell you / but we are never alone.” Yet given the collaborator’s separate discographies, the romantic aspect isn’t terribly surprising. St. Vincent’s 2007 debut Marry Me balanced abrasive confrontation and tender desperation, reflecting on heartbreak and lost love. Meanwhile, David Byrne is the man that brought us “This Must Be The Place,” one of the most enduring love songs of the 80s. On Love This Giant, Clark and Byrne seem enamored less with each other, and more with the idea of love. Their collaboration pulls at the edges, like a negotiation between two impassioned, but ultimately narcissistic lovers.
With Byrne as the lead vocalist, some tracks sound like a 21st reworking of Little Creatures. He’s massively talented, to be sure, but the marriage of these two artists peaks when Clark takes the vocal reigns. On “The Forest Awakes,” Clark lurches and squirms across a morbid brass jungle, her crystal voice careening through lyrics like “my heart beating still the perilous night / the bombs bursting air but my hair is alright.” Later, her voice floats lovingly above “Optimist,” one of the best songs on the album. As toned-down horns and programmed drums simmer, Clark’s lovestruck, contented vocals glide high above the smooth instrumental surface. It’s pretty breathtaking.
Where Love This Giant falters, however, is accessibility. Byrne and Clark are both experts in the rules of songwriting – and they know how to break them. Many of these tracks skim breezily from verse to verse without every building to a traditional chorus. For instance, as “Weekend In The Dust” grooves through funk territory, the squawking horns, layered vocals, and fidgety percussion swell to what might otherwise be a point of climax. Instead, the upsurge disintegrates and the song luxuriates in its well-crafted verses. Other songs, like “I Am An Ape” and “I Should Watch TV” are self-aware absurdities that, while fascinating, aren’t exactly standard subject matter. Combine these sorts of lyrics (“I am an ape / I stand and wait / a masterpiece / a hairy beast”) with Love This Giant’s extraordinary songwriting, and the result can verge on alienating.
On their own, St. Vincent and David Byrne represent the old and new guards of intellectual art-rock. Each boasts a successful solo career that toes the line between convention and avant-garde, where traditional song shapes meet untried instrumentation or peculiar themes. In collaboration, the two artists ascend to a new, mesmerizing plane of experimentation, where they are sometimes successful and at times too bizarre. Regardless, Love This Giant poses a challenge to our music sensibilities, and listening to it feels like a learning experience rather than entertainment. And, when it comes down to it, isn’t that what we want good art to be? [B+]