American Utopia by David Byrne, February 3, 2022
February 04, 2022
Photograph by Joshua Mellin
American utopia opens with David Byrne seated at a table, clutching a brain. For the majority of artists, this image would be a little too much on the nose. But for Byrne, it worked. After all, from the 1070s to the early 1990s, he was known as the leader of the Talking Heads, a man in an oversized suit who could pull off a hypnotic mix of pop, rock, punk and Afrobeat. His nervous anthems like “Psycho Killer”, “Burning Down the House” and “Once in a Lifetime”, defined a generation of anxiety. It is perhaps no exaggeration to believe that in a time also marked by anxiety, he would be willing to let us into his brain – or that thematic through the line of neutral connections we have as that children fading over time would hit so hard.
The Broadway show, which is due to run until April 3 at the St. James Theatre, is certainly a unique choice for the institution. (“The show about the man in the half-mask is across the street,” Byrne joked after the opening song, acknowledging how American utopia strays from traditional Broadway productions.) Preformed on a stage marked only by a silver curtain, it’s up to Byrne and his twelve-piece band to fill the space, which they do with almost constant, clever tricks of light and sometimes positioning Byrne as a human-sized puppet.
The dynamic nature of American utopia cannot be undersold. As Byrne points out at the start of the series, humans love watching humans more than a bike or even a bag of chips. Yes, that’s another statement that with his saccharine-free intonation, only Byrne is qualified to deliver. But as corny as it sounds, but after watching Byrne’s band dance, pose, and strut like a Second Line funeral performed by art geeks, it’s hard not to agree. Given their workload, it makes sense that he recruited capable musicians and dancers from around the world to fulfill his vision. (And why Spike Lee signed on to direct the concert film.)
But for all the joys of the series, perhaps the real thrill comes from seeing Byrne repurpose his old material in such a dynamic way. Yes, the Talking Heads are an integral part of pop culture. But that doesn’t mean their pearls of wisdom don’t apply to us now. And if Byrne can happily rewrite the past, who knows, maybe a future utopia is within our grasp too.