David Byrne and Brian Eno: “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today”
When you get right down to it, the collaborations between David Byrne and Brian Eno are never quite as brainy and intellectual as they sound on paper. Clearly, these are two very intelligent men, and their interest in music can sometimes border on the overly academic– see some of Byrne’s more avant garde world-fusion projects or Eno’s ambient soundscapes, not to mention some of Byrne’s more scholarly and geeky lyrics from his days in Talking Heads– but when they come together, the results never feel studied or scholastic, as they temper their more esoteric inclinations with the herky-jerk physicality of the best Talkings Heads albums, or the spiritual fervor and strange textures of their first album as a duo, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
Coming some two decades after their last album together, 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today might be their most immediate album ever, or at least since the run of Eno-produced Talking Heads albums. It’s music that hits you in the gut long before it sinks into your head, so never mind their attempt to classify it as “folk electronica gospel” in the liner notes. Granted, the music here does lift tropes from each of those three pop idioms, but it’s nothing akin to the experimental, genre-bending exploration it might read as on paper. What it is is Byrne and Eno capturing the spirit of gospel music at its best, making an album that’s all in major keys, adorned in simple, uncluttered arrangements, an album where– as Eno writes– “singing is the central event.” (And thankfully, Byrne has learned to sing, at least somewhat.) There’s a communal spirit, a spirit of generosity that permeates every note– which is probably why the album was made available as a free download months before it showed up in stores.
In other words, it’s rich, stirring music that speaks to the soul. So naturally, the closest antecedents it has are the two most soulful, vibrant albums Eno has worked on in recent memory: It borrows in equal measure from the spirited, emotionally-direct pop of U2‘s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and the shifting soundscapes of Paul Simon’s Surprise. The end result is a very uncommon thing indeed: An album made almost entirely out of electronic, synthetic sounds that is really, genuinely warm and soulful.
Eno composed all the music here, and his achievement is a major one. Working within the constraints of electronic instrumentation, he recreates the spirit and intimacy of gospel and folk idioms with remarkable accuracy. It doesn’t sound like electronic music seeking to imitate gospel music; it actually sounds like gospel music that just happens to be played on electronic instruments. Notice the sultry, lazy country swing of “My Big Nurse,” or the chanted sing-along “Life is Long,” which almost sounds like it could be sung to pass the time by some futuristic chain gang. There is warmth in these performances, and a real emotional connection between the two artists, which means that the music never sounds like an experiment (even though it is)– it feels like something that’s simply heartfelt.
Byrne, for his part, wrote all the lyrics, and he, too, pulls off a pretty neat trick: He divorces gospel music from its explicit religiosity but maintains its integrity and its spirituality. His words here are far too idiosyncratic, too full of humor and doubt and bizarre imagery to be sung in a church setting, yet biblical allusions are plentiful, and the songs very much have an optimistic, joyful bent to them. In the opening song, “Home”– which borrows its melody from U2’s “Walk On,” giving some indication of the tone this album takes– Byrne addresses all the pain and sadness that can be associated with a home (a broken one, anyway), but also the joy and warmth it can bring. The song is ultimately a celebration of everything that the word carries with it, both good and bad, and it sets the tone of open-hearted joy and gratitude that marks the rest of the album, be it in Byrne’s giddiness at “the possibility of dancing on a lazy afternoon” in “My Big Nurse” or the title cut’s simple, profound joy in living in the moment and being thankful for the here and now.
The album goes off on some weird detours– like the fractured jazz piano and sinister sing-along coda in “I Feel My Stuff”– and incorporates a variety of textures and sounds, ranging from the title song’s gospel choir to the muted horns on “Life is Long” and the strange, futuristic percussion and rhythmic sophistication of “Poor Boy.” And yet, given the process by which it was recorded– Eno composed the music, mailed it on a CD to Byrne who wrote lyrics, recorded vocals, and sent it back– the whole thing feels remarkably focused and spontaneous, as if banged out by the two of them, in a room together, in just a matter of days. And that’s what makes it such a thoroughly charming work– not the experimentation or the musical sophistication, but the sheer simplicity and joy of it all, the fact that it sounds great and is, at many points, genuinely moving. That’s not something one typically says about brainy electronica experiments, but then, this record is far from typical. Byrne and Eno could never recreate the spark they capture here, and, thankfully, they probably don’t even want to. They’ve made a one-of-a-kind album here that deserves to be not only listened to, but lived in, lost in, and cherished.