By Mark Guarino
When lead singers of rock bands go solo, the shadow of their former selves can’t help but loom large. Yet that hasn’t been the case for David Byrne, who walked away from Talking Heads in the late ‘80s after seven albums, a preeminent concert film and a legacy for combining African rhythms with art punk ingenuity.
Byrne has yet to make an album as great as his days as head Head, but he never made it seem like he wants to topple anything. Instead, his solo years have been personal odysseys into a wide range of musical pockets including Brazilian dance music, cartoonish pop and instrumental scores. “Grown Backwards” (Nonesuch), his sixth proper set of songs, is just as eclectic, moving from parlor music to Broadway to French pop. It is also his most consistently melodic, with a bent for silliness and classical misbehavior.
The songs are set inside pristine production with instruments sounding almost shaved down in place. A needle-thin drum loop clicks through “Why” and “Glass, Concrete, Stone” opens the album by building, piece by piece, a bongo, xylophone then swooning cello. Even the sole dance track “Dialog Box” is orderly — the unfussy horn arrangements guarantee a jerky time on the dance floor.
But the obsession for orderliness accentuates Byrne’s signature persona as the Middle American still trying to find his groove. Despite a backdrop of strings and two opera arias in French and Italian (one a duet with pop crooner Rufus Wainwright), Byrne remains aloof in his distinct world of private observations. “Civilization” details first date jitters while “Glad” cheers the glories of incompetence (“I’m glad I got lost/I’m glad I’m confused/I’m glad I don’t know what I like,” he sings).
Observations like this one — “skin that covers me from head to toe/except a couple tiny holes and openings/ where the city’s blowing in and out” —remain one of his best.
That said, the Big Suit days are long gone. The real revelation of “Backwards” is its unapologetic romantic heart. Big, openhearted melodies blush everywhere. “The Other Side of Life,” where Byrne confesses “I’m in the church of your hairdo/and I’m in a shrine of your legs,” the strings stir into a big, Broadway moment. Except for some places where the sentiments and ideas become Hallmark cute (a parade of jolly pirates anyone?), the music reminds us being a simpleton is being in love.