Remain in Touchby Todd Simmons
Brian Eno & David Byrne, Everything that Happens Will Happen Today (Todo Mundo)
David Byrne has been a busy downtown icon these last several decades, which is how long it’s taken him and producer/“non-musician” Brian Eno to get around to recording the follow-up to 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Between transforming the entire Maritime Building on the lower Manhattan seaport into an interactive instrument, designing unusual bicycle racks, writing, drawing, recording, touring, and running a record label, Byrne has been booked. Eno, arguably the highest-profile producer in the business, hasn’t exactly been idle himself. But following the recent reissue of Bush of Ghosts, the two reconnected. It turned out that Eno had some basic tracks lying around the studio, and “hates writing words.” So Byrne agreed to give it a go, and the transatlantic collaboration has yielded a first-rate successor to their highly regarded debut effort.
In 1977, David Byrne and his band Talking Heads were the resident oddballs at CBGB. While most of their American and British peers were pounding out short, loud, angry songs, Byrne was playing the angst-ridden, fidgety nerd telling tales of ordinary madness, constantly on the verge of jumping out of his skin. It was the group’s second album, More Songs about Buildings and Food, produced by Eno, that would launch them into uncharted musical terrain and a three-record collaboration (with Fear of Music and Remain in Light) that would clinch their status as innovators. It is startling to consider the depth and complexity of those records, made without the use of today’s computer technology. Byrne and Eno had access to the most modern tools for their new project, Everything that Happens Will Happen Today, but it is clear that these guys were decades ahead of their peers in the late 70s. Like the Beatles and Pink Floyd before them, Eno and the Heads were able to make futuristic-sounding albums that still seem ahead of the curve even now.
Towards the end of Talking Heads’ creative run, Byrne and Eno set out on their own to record the progressively urgent Bush of Ghosts. Describing it themselves as a “collage,” they loaded the record with found voices that included international spiritual singers, talk-radio hosts, and televangelists. The record was a masterful production that was more sound-and-rhythm experiment than songbook. It never came close to the mainstream acceptance of their work with Talking Heads, but its radical use of samples within the framework of rock-based songs was hugely influential and widely copied by adventurous bands and sound artists.
Eno’s facility with keyboards, synthesizers, sound treatments, and atmospheric backdrops has been evident since the first Roxy Music album in 1972. He has managed to put a stealthy stamp on the work of all his collaborators (including Roxy, David Bowie, Peter Gabiel–era Genesis, Robert Wyatt, U2, Devo, Depeche Mode, and Laurie Anderson) while pushing each of them to develop a sound of their own.
It’s hard to believe that Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is Byrne and Eno’s first joint project in twenty-seven years. While it feels accessible, it contains a certain urgency that may be a mark of these politically troubling times. Byrne’s lyrics are as disquieting as ever, but this time the songs have a more traditional pop structure (albeit with Eno’s space manipulations humming throughout). Byrne and Eno describe the sound as “electronic gospel.” There are soulful, bluesy elements to the music, but we never forget how technically adventurous these two have always been. On “I Feel My Stuff” there are nods to both Radiohead (who, incidentally, named themselves after a Talking Heads song) and, in the jagged rap delivery, Byrne’s own work. The guitar feedback on the track (credited as “drone guitar,” and played by Roxy alumnus Phil Manzanera) harkens back to “Baby’s on Fire” from Eno’s criminally underrated 1973 solo debut, Here Come the Warm Jets. The thinking-man’s disco number “Strange Overtones” sounds like an updating of the Heads’ Remain in Light.
Despite being worked on across a distance of thousands of miles (Eno in London, Byrne in New York City), Everything that Happens sounds like the product of a band that has been playing together for years. Byrne and Eno are clearly on the same wavelength, much as Eno shared a mindset with David Bowie on their late 70s trio of collaborations, Bowie’s Low, Heroes, and Lodger. Byrne and Eno have made a truly contemporary record by creating it over long distances via the internet and occasional transatlantic flights back and forth, yet they have created something that feels immediate and cohesive. There is a confident fluidity to the music, and more than enough to satisfy fans of their previous work together. Everything that Happens sounds like a couple of wily veterans breaking out and enjoying themselves. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another twenty-seven years for them to get back together and do it for a third time.
Todd Simmons is a writer/actor/improviser. He lives in the East Village.