The album I want to write about, in pure first impression terms, is not from an artist I know very well or am particularly passionate about. It's the oddball project from David Byrne of Talking Heads/Crazy Solo Musicology fame collaborating with Fatboy Slim of Songs That Were Popular In The 90s. The reason: It's a 2 disc concept album about Imelda Marcos.
Imelda Marcos, the infamous wife of martial law dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, of the Philippines. Best known for being a modern, Southeast Asian Marie Antoinette and for her obscene shoe collection. Joining them is an all-star cast of indie, pop and rock & roll female vocalists. It's one of those projects that's like a paper airplane: when you throw it, it will either be a perfect glide or a crazy, skittish nose dive.
Byrne, to his credit, isn't just haphazardly choosing an oddball topic. He's done his research, spent time on the islands, and I get the sense that he at least has a good hold of the context of what he's making an album about. Whether that comes through in the music is a separate story. Byrne says he's chosen this topic because the "conflation of fantasy, personal pain and politics that runs through history and that played itself out [in the Philippines] in a dramatically obvious way." For those seeking insight into the madness behind this project, I highly recommend that link. It's a long article written by Byrne himself about his time researching.
So, here is that album at long last, Here Lies Love, complete with awkward, dated portrait of Imelda Marcos as the cover art. I guess the fear is that the album might be embarassing; Perhaps it makes a caricature of the history or the country or the culture. Perhaps it might be terribly whitewashed and romanticize a dark period of Philippine history.
But what if was a totally fun, interesting, educational and, above all, sonically beautiful two disc album? That's the best we could hope for.
I can't write about it track-by-track when there are 22 of them. I tried, but the length was getting too enormous, even for me. Concept albums especially deserve to be evaluated as a whole, and not in their individual parts. What we have here is an all-star ensemble of vocalists, shepherded and produced by notable music pioneers. How did this all shake out?
Well, it's inoffensive to the culture, and that is always a plus. There are a few standouts: Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine's voice sells the title track, although it does breakdown periodically into disco beat sequences. But when it gets back up into soaring, movie-like, swelling strings and vocals, it is auditorially pleasing. Sharon Jones on "Dancing Together" really brings some much needed vigor to the song. Other singers with a unique vocal quality, such as My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden and Sia, provide the other stand out tracks, although I can't shake the feeling that they deserved a better music backing.
It all comes down to disco. As a point, Byrne and Slim are using the audio aesthetics of disco to tell their story. There are few variations, some better than others. Steve Earle on track 6 of disc 1, "A Perfect Hand," is a straight up rousing country music song and there is nothing more unusual or ironic on an album like this. Otherwise, it adheres to disco's aged, bland genre rules. I know this is a personal taste, but there are some boring ass beats with very little extra ingredients to stave off complete and utter predictability. By the end of the first disc, I started to wear on the psuedo-elevator music, adult rock radio station vibe of the whole thing.
I get that the choice to focus on disco sounds is apt, and of-the-times, and part of Imelda's character. But why adhere to that trait of the story over any others? If Byrne and Slim were so intent on making it accurate of the character and the era, why not use Filipino artists too? Why not root the lyrics deeply in that time? Why stick to one quality of the time, the disco music, which sucks? I say throw out all the rules. If you're going to have Cyndi Lauper sing as Imelda Marcos, you might as well just throw out any notion of Philippine pop-music of the time.
But what about the storytelling? What about what the album says about the life and impact of Imelda Marcos?
The good news is that the perspective isn't limited to the top of her ivory tower. We get a view from the underside, the wrong side of capitalism, when we are treated to songs about Imelda's early life, or the continuing life of Estrella Cumpas, the caretaker/maid that raised her. Byrne builds a veritable cast here, almost turning the album into a soundtrack for a musical that hasn't been produced yet. But it only suggests that genre - it is still too light on lyrical density and story movement to be a musical.
Whereas songs in a musical have a kind of progress and character exploration in their verses, Here Lies Love hits on one bullet point of a story/character and it is reiterated ad nauseum until the song is done. "Men Will Do Anything," featuring Alice Russel, is a woman scorned and nothing more. "Eleven Days," featuring Cyndi Lauper, is the flashpoint where Imelda falls in love, and it serves nothing else but to establish "this is how we know she is now in love." It says nothing about that love, the nature of their meeting, any doubts, any complexity, any character at all: just that now the main character is in love. You finish the first verse of the song and you don't need to hear any more because that's the whole story for the next four minutes.
Take for example, the haunting "Order 1081" featuring Natalie Merchant. This is the most obvious history reference, detailing the issue of Proclamation 1081 by Marcos that initiated martial law. It ends every line with the words "order one oh eighty one," the way a folk song would. That isn't itself bad, but every verse in the 6 minutes is just a variation of "there is chaos, let us proclaim martial law," over and over. Imagine this on stage as a musical. Imagine how boring it would get by minute 2.
It is strange, I know, to talk about an album in terms of storytelling and character dimensionality. But such is my amateur inclination, driven by the concept that Byrne and Slim really want to sell.
It is also focused on the universality of the emotions and story points, which is an interesting choice. On one hand, if you take away the sparse name dropping of Philippine places (Tacloban, Leyte, Solano Ave), it can be about anyone, even during modern times. Some of the songs even speak in a modern context. In that way, it becomes about any and every rise to prominence and marital turbulence and eventual implosion. But it's not distinctly about this part of Philippine history, but rather, the emotions central to the figures-made-characters.
I don't want to shit on the album. It's not bad, and it deserves praise for it's ambition and willingness to tackle such an offbeat subject. But the prevalence of dead disco beats, coupled with one-dimensional story beats, works against the things that the album does right. I mean, Byrne solos on a track called "American Troglodyte" that expresses, from a Filipino mindset, the inferiority complex and America-worshiping copycat culture created on the islands by imperialism. And I love him for that. But the song itself kind of blows. The beat is fangless, maybe even obnoxious. The melodic structure gets into dizzying repetition, probably by design, but it is not a sonically pleasing effect or even emotionally stirring.
I guess in some ways I see the album as a series of missed opportunities. In terms of music, they could have chosen a better general flavor than distant, aged disco. Imagine if they threw out the idea of cohesive, of-the-times, music and instead went wild with a whole variety of genres. The tools at their disposable, coupled with the emotions in the story, could have been great. As it is, it's just kind of grating and unfortunate.
In terms of story, there is a wealth of emotion here, and Byrne recognizes them all by pinpointing them in 22 tracks, but they are not extrapolated in any meaningful way. Instead, the storytelling opts for pure cheese, like a straight to VHS sub-musical from the 1980s. I mean, check out "Walk Like a Woman," featuring Charmaine Clamor. It's got a cool, funk beat and Clamor's voice conveys a sincere yearning, but it marred by the overall corniness. Is nothing cheesier than the use of the chime sound you would find on a cheap keyboard? Or proclamations like, "I'm gonna learn to walk like a woman!"
There are Disney-esque styles of elegance and yearning, down to the flute arrangements that sound like they're out of Cinderella. "The Rose of Tacloban," in particular, sounds like something from a Disney princess film, where the young downtrodden girl dreams of fame and prominence. The comparison is apt, due to the cartoonish dimension, but I wonder, is that the point? Is Byrne making an audible cartoon of these historical characters?
I have said that the setting of the Philippines is barely noticeable in the album save for some name dropping. But when they do name drop, it is a strange sensation to hear some of your favorite artists sing the names of places and events you know. It is a bit like two separate groups of friends meeting each other, or someone encroaching on your hidden world: Oddly thrilling, yet also weird.
Ultimately, I'm glad the album was made, and I'm glad that someone like David Byrne has the curiosity and drive to pursue such a project. I wasn't expecting a musical documentary, or a political statement, or some sort of validation. But I was expecting something with more variety and story. In the end, it occurs to me that maybe this is an album more about attempting to tell a story with disco sounds, as opposed to telling Imelda's story.
In a month's time, I can't see myself listening to much of these songs fully. I imagine I'll be hitting next track at the first note of a drum machine, or ancient synth, or dead bass. At least it's not a disaster. I'd rather have it be boring than disgusting.