Dinner for Two or More: David Byrne and St. Vincent (Annie Clark)’s collaboration Love This Giant

By Daniel Garrett

David Byrne and St. Vincent (Annie Clark), Love This Giant
Todo Mundo/4AD, 2012

The voice of Annie Clark of St. Vincent works as a complement and conscience for David Byrne’s braying, questing voice. Yet, her voice has its own nerviness and urgency in their collaborations on the song collection Love This Giant, with music that has elements of folk, rock, jazz, and funk—a popular and experimental mixture. David Byrne and Annie Clark of St. Vincent are vividly together in “Who,” a query in bluesy, brassy song about fellowship, honesty, and identity, an exploration of enthusiasm and doubt in a relationship, featuring Annie Clark’s lovely but insistently questioning refrain, “Who is an honest man?” The musical arrangements throughout the album are frequently dense, full of detail; and the vocal arrangement of “Weekend in the Dust” is inflected by a stuttered rhythm, and the song has both whimsy and soul. A view of an eccentric household is described with Byrne’s voice in “Dinner for Two,” featuring uptempo rhythm, marching brass, and atmospheric noise. In “Dinner for Two,” Byrne’s phrasing is short, somewhat delicate, against brass and percussion—brief acoustic beats, and bright, louder horn accents. “Ice Age,” with Annie Clark’s singing a line such as “Old diamond, how we bend?,” has a coolly light, intensely bouncy sound that once was considered new wave. Annie Clark’s begins the song “Ice Age” with long, slow, weary phrasing, then stuttered enunciation; and at one point her voice rises high and light, akin to a church chorus. David Byrne’s odd voice—flat, playful, warm, intelligent—and the rhythms and humor of “I Am an Ape” harken back to his great band, the Talking Heads.

The singer-songwriter, record producer, and world-music lover David Byrne, now white-haired and wise looking, and the sensitive, and younger, Annie Clark, a Texas-born multi-instrumentalist, a woman with dark curly hair and a shy manner and bold vision, an artist who has made a great splash in independent music circles, met at an entertainment center, Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall, and then attended a Housing Works bookstore music event featuring Bjork and Dirty Projectors; and they subsequently worked on the music on Love This Giant for more than two years together, sharing the writing of ten songs, with each contributing an additional solo composition. Clark, whose musical tastes include David Bowie, Steely Dan, War, the Pointer Sisters, and Grace Jones, told Time magazine (September 17, 2012) that she and Byrne worked at the crossroads of art and popular music (“a nice intersection of Art Avenue and Pop Street”). “I’m free and I’m keeping my clothes on,” Annie Clark sings in “The Forest Awakes,” a composition with poetic words and exuberant music, in which song itself is compared to a gift, a road, a face, a mountain. Apparently, and surprisingly, Byrne, not Clark, was the lyricist for that song. “The bigger the front, then the bigger the back,” sings Clark in what may be a suggestive non sequitur. The song may be one of the most explicit times when the songwriters use their own experience as creators, and social observers, as a subject.

“When collaboration works, you get this third thing. A third person appears, and it’s kind of their music, not yours,” surmised David Byrne, the author of the book How Music Works, to Jesse Dorris writing for Time (Sept. 17, 2012). Byrne is a man of whose vivid surfaces are inspired by depth; and true shallowness is a mystery to him. Television, with its multitude of images, is a mass medium that also functions as a symptom, a cultural clue, a way to lose self-consciousness and to connect with others, in “I Should Watch TV,” a song that compels the listener to think about the individual’s relation to society, though one wonders about Byrne’s only now—at this late date—coming to terms with television. Of course, it is arguable that every medium is changed by its era: so that the television of the 1950s is not that of the 1970s or of now.

Culture begins with acts of survival, acts that become embellished with detail, intelligence, ritual, and sentiment. Culture is where we live, what we eat, how we speak and dress, our habits of family, friendship, and love, and the stories we tell to entertain and instruct. It can be high, and it can be low. It can be personal and it can be impersonal. Often, we fall in love with our embellishments—and culture begins to have more to do with want than need. Culture is sometimes shaped by creativity and sometimes by criticism, by new objects and practices and by ways of seeing and thinking. In our time, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, culture of all kinds are abundant—not only music and dance, film, literature, and painting and sculpture in which significant experience and thought have been invested, but extreme political discourse, mindless religiosity, reality television shows showcasing the worst of human behavior, and misogynist and homophobic rapping sold as entertainment, and internet sites that privilege in different places rigorous research and celebrity, gossip, and rudeness. Who can make sense of all that? Traditionally, artists and thinkers have made sense of the most chaotic culture. It may be time again to ask more of our artists and thinkers.

The sung duet of David Byrne and Annie Clark in “Lazarus” is one of the stronger songs on Love This Giant, and, of course, includes some biblical references, but also the assertion, “I didn’t come to set you free,” which Byrne sings. In “Optimist,” Clark’s sound can be vulnerable, with significant appeal—yearning, true, with the instrumental accompaniment as counterpoint. (The music contains so much it almost always acts as counterpoint.) Why is a woman’s sadness so often compelling? Does it touch our own wound, or confirm our sense of strength? Clark herself noted that, “The thing about optimism is that it’s not optimism unless things are kind of bad!” (Time, Sept. 17, 2012). “Lightning” is attractive, especially for Clark’s voice.

The music is wild in “The One Who Broke Your Heart,” an eccentric composition featuring the Dap Kings and Antibalas, two well-known rhythm groups, but Byrne’s voice rides that wildness like a surfer the waves—and his voice is the stable quality, the point of orientation. Byrne told Nitsuh Abebe of New York magazine (Fall Preview, 2012) that both he and Clark approached songwriting as if it were a puzzle, a philosophical approach, something I think of as the fundamental inclination of the most interesting artists and thinkers, who are likely to address questions not only regarding emotion or social incident as content but about the very purpose of an artistic form or practice. “One of the things I like so much about David’s work is that he’s able to live at the intersection of the artful and the accessible, and I think that’s where I’ve tried to live as well,” Clark told Abebe. With that kind of purpose, Byrne and Clark can reach an audience not only with pleasing music but with significant music, here inspired by the largeness of their chosen brassy sound. Their music has different kinds of appeal; for instance, mournful and downbeat, though marked with what sounds like an electronic pulse, is “Outside of Space and Time.” Byrne and Clark, who embarked on an autumn tour—of Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, and elsewhere—performing their collaborations, have given us a remarkably rich collection of songs.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.