Strolling through the back alleys of his native New York recently, ex-Talking Heads titan David Byrne happened upon a quaint curiosity—an old-fashioned candy shop, where they were handcrafting chocolate novelties in the window. “And I thought ‘Well, I’m gonna go in and see what this place is like’,” the singer recalls. “And inside, they had a chocolate Nikon camera, a woman’s high-heeled shoe—full size—and an old-style cellphone, almost a foot long, made of chocolate. I mean, who in the hell is gonna buy a chocolate shoe?”
Actually, Byrne did. “That stuff was so amazing, I just bought all of it,” he sighs, a little embarrassed. “So all of that chocolate ended up on the shelves in my office, because I just can’t bring myself to eat it.” If you understand such elliptical thinking—exemplified by an old Drew Friedman pointilism cartoon that depicted a pith-helmeted Byrne, microphone in hand, stumbling upon a similarly outfitted Paul Simon, trolling for strange new sounds in the jungle—then you’ll immediately dig the charming, oblique strategies of Grown Backwards, Byrne’s latest solo sketchbook of an album for Nonesuch. After all, how many alt-rock stars would dare invite Rufus Wainwright to croon an operatic duet on a classical Bizet piece, “Au Fond Du Temple Saint”? Or bookend that with another symphonic obscurity, Verdi’s “Un Di Felice, Eterea,” and then pivot 180 degrees into a string-bowed version of Lambchop’s “The Man Who Loved Beer”? But that’s Byrne, to an eccentric T. Song after quirky song—oddly-syncopated originals like “Astronaut,” “Dialog Box” and the wickedly cynical “Empire”—he manages to find beauty in the humdrum, the mundane, the everyday objects most folks overlook.
On Grown Backwards—as on Byrne’s standout ’70s/’80s work with Talking Heads—even a friendly lyrical reference, such as seeing “the world in a cup of coffee,” is never as simple as it first appears. “To be honest, with the coffee-cup thing I was thinking about chaos theory,” cedes Byrne, 51, who’s also just issued a book/DVD collection of power-point art pieces called “Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information,” as well as a faux-religious tract for Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s imprint dubbed “The New Sins.”
“[I was] thinking about how a lot of that theory attempts to explain the way cream forms little eddies and spirals when you drop it in a coffee cup. Why does it make those shapes? There’s a whole genre of science trying to explain that.” Musically, however, Byrne’s no longer combing tropical rainforests with Simon for found sounds, hoping to issue them on his world-music label Luaka Bop. “Now I’m looking at classic American songwriting, which is really important music written in the last century. My new songs are definitely much more melodic, because I love that Cole Porter kind of stuff, although I do still listen to a lot of things from other places because that music is still really important to me. But I think a lot of it gets out there now that wouldn’t have gotten out before without my help, which is pretty great.”
For the inquisitive listener, Byrne has placed some lyrical candy just inside the Grown doorway. Yes, says the staunch New Yorker, he was heavily influenced by the 9/11 tragedy. And yes, growls this defiant anti-Iraq-war activist, he has some very strong opinions on our current political climate. Though you’ll have to read between the poetic lines to find them. “But I’m optimistic that times will change soon,” he declares, fingers firmly crossed.
Until then, Byrne pleads, please don’t file him away as the spider-limbed caricature from the Talking Heads’ defining concert flick, Stop Making Sense (1984). “I’ve done a lot since then,” he says. “So it’s a little bit painful when somebody goes ‘Hey—you’re the big suit guy! Whaddaya been doing for the last 14 years?’ For me, music is now a way of thinking, a way of understanding things. Whether it’s recording, making little drawings or diagrams or fooling around on the computer, it’s just become this ongoing thing. And sometimes it leads to something, sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere. But I have to keep doing it. I just have to figure it all out.