Here Lies Love
is a double-disc song cycle--improbably poignant, decidedly surreal, surprisingly thought provoking--about the rise and fall of the Philippines' notorious Imelda Marcos. It was conceived by David Byrne; composed by Byrne and DJ/recording artist Fatboy Slim, AKA Norman Cook; and performed by a dream cast drawn from the worlds of indie rock, alt country, R&B and pop. Byrne's taste in collaborators is as imaginative as it is impeccable, including Cyndi Lauper (who recounts, to lighthearted disco beats, Imelda's courtship with Ferdinand Marcos), Steve Earle (as the power-hungry Ferdinand), Dap-Kings vocalist Sharon Jones (recalling Imelda's introduction into New York society) and Natalie Merchant (as spurned Imelda confidante Estrella, anticipating the onset of martial law). Along with vocal turns from such stars as Tori Amos and the B-52's Kate Pierson, Byrne works with rising indie rockers St. Vincent and My Brightest Diamond; New York chanteuses Nellie McKay and Martha Wainwright; and dance-music divas Roisin Murphy and Santigold. Byrne himself appears as the voice of imperialistic America on "American Troglodyte", a send-up that wouldn't have seemed out of places in Talking Heads' True Stories.
Byrne originally envisioned this as a musical theatre piece, to be mounted in disco and nightclub settings, reflecting the globe-trotting Marcos' taste for such velvet-roped spots as Studio 54 and Regine's. In 2006, he performed work-in-progress versions to enthusiastic audiences at New York City's Carnegie Hall and the Adelaide Festival in Australia. While plans for a US theatrical production continue to evolve, he has delivered this unique recording. Here Lies Love has an effervescent disco feel, redolent of Fatboy Slim's own dance-floor anthems, with warm undercurrents of the Latin rhythms that have percolated through Byrne's recent solo work. The sunny arrangements act in counterpoint to the reality of the Marcos' increasingly repressive regime, reflecting the imagined inner life of the glamour-obsessed Imelda. Explains Byrne, "For me, the darker side of the excesses are, for the most part, a matter of record. A lot of the audience is going to come with that knowledge already. What's more of a challenge is to get inside the head of the person who was behind all of that, and understand what made them tick." Byrne offers no judgment and avoids the obvious--there is no mention of Imelda's infamous shoe collection.
Many of Byrne's lyrics are, astonishingly enough, constructed from actual Imelda quotes, including the project's title, the words that Imelda, now returned to the Philippines from US-assisted exile in Hawaii, would like to have inscribed on her gravestone. Byrne generously annotates each song in the CD booklet and illustrates the story with archival photos. In a detailed preface, he reveals what drew him to this subject and the bumpy route he took to launch the project and, ultimately, record this CD. The lavish booklet is indeed a page-turner, just as Here Lies Love is a wonderfully old-school album that rewards start-to-finish listening. Once again, Byrne--beloved as musician, thinker and bicyclist-about-town--reveals the breadth and singularity of his vision.
Who else but David Byrne would attempt a 22-song disco opera about the intertwined lives of the Philippines’ controversial first lady Imelda Marcos and childhood confidant Estrella Cumpas? He’s got the socio-political conscience, theatrical vision, globalised perspective and unquestionably the vaunting creativity.
By comparison, his main collaborator Fatboy Slim – an artist known for little more than a nauseating crossbreeding of Jive Bunny and the Energizer Bunny – would seem some way out of his league. Indeed, Slim and cohort Cagedbaby’s clunky, heavy handed productions are the weak link here. Too frequently they default to hackneyed production tricks like dated filter sweeps, bubbling 303s and rudimentary, straight-off-the-vinyl percussion loops.
Unfortunately, the album’s other USP, a Gorillaz-trumping cavalcade of female contributors, regularly misfires too. Certain voices – Tori Amos, Candie Payne, Allison Moorer for example – either don’t fit the quirky backings or their delivery style sits awkwardly with the literal, show-tune lyrics required to drive the plot. Moreover, the repeated shifts in tone and multitude of voices serve only to confuse the twin narratives of Marcos and Cumpas, leaving the story arc tricky to follow and the characters impossible to emotionally invest in. The lavish booklet that accompanies the album helps, but with such proven talent on board these songs should really stand up for themselves.
Still, there are some fantastic moments: Róisín Murphy’s slinky disco turn on Don’t You Agree?, Santi White’s righteous strutting on Please Don’t and a striking, near operatic vocal from Shara Worden on Seven Years render the remaining tracks lumpen and conservative by comparison. And Byrne’s unerring melodic touch is everywhere; so much so, not even the MOR grind of Steve Earle can derail it on A Perfect Hand.
Sadly though, the prevalence of mid-tempo, Des’ree-lite ballads and inconsistent quality make this is an exhausting listen over 90 minutes. Fans might have been better served at first by a single disc of highlights, with the full version accompanying the inevitable stage show. The scale and audacity of Byrne’s ambition is hugely impressive, but as an album Here Lies Love is easier to admire than it is to enjoy. --Jim Brackpool
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