Talking Heads Meets St. Vincent
Collaborative albums can be a tricky business. If the artists are too similar in style, the result can end up limping forward with a sort of “so what” banality, and if the artists are too different…well, you just might end up with another Lulu. Thankfully, Love This Giant, the brainchild of David Byrne (ex-front man of the Talking Heads and a constant innovator in music and other mediums) and Annie Clark (known as St. Vincent, the avant-garde indie darling whose career proves that accessibility and intricacy are not mutually exclusive), avoids both of these pitfalls.
The album, which finds itself expertly orchestrated around a driving brass ensemble core (an incredibly effective tool suggested by Clark), charges forward with such a profound sense of swagger and purpose that each of the record’s 12 tracks rings out with elemental clarity and verve as it bounces along to the rollicking New Orleans chime of a hungry horn section.
In addition to lending the work a unique and memorable flavor, the brass offers itself up as a dutiful antidote for the sometimes overly “art-rock” sensibilities of the two artists, which could have easily punctured the music’s cerebral yet juicily somatic gusto. At times in their careers, their willingness to leap forward so aggressively waylaid the music, which leaves the worst of both performer’s work (which is still quite good) seeming detached and cold. Thankfully, Love This Giant did not have this problem. Even when Byrne and Clark decided to explore overly avant-garde ground, the horns hold each song together by providing visceral treats that sustain even the most ill-advised of lyrical ventures—a big, beautiful brass heart pumping trills of soaring blood to the farthest reaches of each and every song.
While the album doesn’t seem to have an overarching thematic ideal, it achieves a brilliant sonic wholeness and consistency. That being said, many tracks do stand out, grabbing hold of the fundamentals of the album and holding them aloft in unique and invigorating ways. The opener “Who” launches Giant with a confidence and style that is unmatched in recent music. As David Byrne unleashes his trademark croon upon the track’s aggressive sax groove, Clark provides an ethereal yet discursive reading of the song’s bridge. And when those two music limbs finally do intertwine in harmonies during the track’s final third, the perfection of the combination becomes undeniably clear. Moving from a razored, yearning whisper to a full-blown explosion, the two voices tear up the stakes of the album and launch it ecstatically into the air.
On “Ice Age,” Clark soothes with a melancholic tenderness that expertly deflates the boom of previous tracks while still reaching exciting crescendos. Just like all the best St. Vincent tracks, “Ice Age” combines an unabashed sensitivity with an equally confident up-beat energy. The very next track, “I Am An Ape,” gives Byrne his standout moment of the album as he moves from stretches of full-throated croon to a more punctuated, conversational refrain. The transitions are flawless and exciting and the song thumps along with such style that it is hard not to be awed by the perfection of it all. On “Optimist,” which is perhaps my favorite track, driving percussion forms a seething ocean under Clark’s wonderfully comforting vocals as she provides a truism of simple yet exquisite consolation. Finally, “Outside of Space & Time,” the album’s closer, trades in wonderful transcendence, which combines cerebral and emotional satisfaction to remind listeners of the incredible power of “art-rock” that, when done just right, has the capacity to excite on all levels, to desegregate our modes of experience, and provide an all-encompassing sense of recognition.
What is perhaps the most incredible part of the album, though, is how truly natural the combination of Clark and Byrne feels. I don’t think I’ve ever been so invested in the future of a collaboration, but Love This Giant is simply too incredible to be a one off. These two brilliant and distinctive artists have indeed discovered some sort of elemental harmony, drawn upon something so beautifully fundamental that it seems to reach beyond the parcel to spill over as some latent musical truth. When you’re listening to Love This Giant, there seems to be nothing past it, nothing outside of it. The world ends at the outskirts of the music. And as the album unspools, there seems to be absolutely nothing wrong with that. As Clark notes on “Optimist”: “How it is is how it ought to be.”