David Byrne’s a New York man who works a special New York charm: even though his last really gripping album is now over thirty years old, he keeps his name in the lights – and in the critics’ good books – by constantly innovating with sounds, pushing the frontiers of recording technology, and challenging conventional methods of music distribution; doing everything, in fact, short of making a record worth listening to.
So adept is he at staying in with the times, that when he chooses to cut an album with an up-and-coming young artist of formidable talent – but also, as it happens, of impeccable avant garde credentials – you start to wonder unkindly just how much the move owes to his ever-present need to be seen doing the cool thing.
For Annie Clark, the self-styled St. Vincent, on the other hand, the partnership makes perfect sense. She is that rare thing in the music industry, a complete original. Byrne, for better or worse, has always been one too. His run with the Talking Heads produced some of the most singular music of the New Wave movement, and their concert film, Stop Making Sense, is an extraordinary piece of performance art that’s as stylistically ambitious as it is pure, breathless entertainment: in short, Byrne has done greatness with the best of them. With his glory years now sat nicely at the top of his CV, and with his periodic exercises in reminding the world that, if not fun for the family, he is at least not a complacent superstar slacker, you can see why any artist who values wilful creativity – as St. V. clearly does – would, given the chance, pick him as a collaborator.
Byrne & St. Vincent’s single – Who – is already out, and is everything the pairing promises: it has a deadly sharp groove and a full brass-section (the Dap Kings, no less, apparently), which I’m guessing is Byrne’s part of the deal. St. Vincent contributes lacy vocals, though there’s not as much of her one-off, wildly imaginative guitar playing as I’d have liked. The words look daft on paper, but that doesn’t particularly hurt the recording. The production is predictably shiny. The melody isn’t one for the ages, but, again, that isn’t a prerequisite for a certain kind of funky, snappy music; as for the funk and snap, there’s plenty to sate all comers. All in all, the single is a monument to craftsmanship and arrangement. Like all monuments, it has been built to impress, and it succeeds; like all monuments, it is also cold, distant, and impersonal.
In any case, whatever its shortcomings, St. Vincent and David Byrne have nothing to really worry about. Nobody cares if records like these are any good; it’s the premise which matters. And the premise here – “genre-defying New Wave elder statesman meets experimental art-rock waif” – is so critic-friendly that it can’t possibly fail. Reporters will lap it up. Magazines will fall over themselves in their rush to praise it. The reviews will practically write themselves. The proceeds from the inevitable concert tour afterwards will pay the gas bills for years to come.
A slightly different version of this article first appeared on Wild City on July the 12th.