‘Weekend in the Dust’
Track 2 on
Love This Giant (2012)
The sudden pairing of Talking Heads’ enigmatic, stiff-limbed silver fox David Byrne with equally enigmatic indie-rock diva St. Vincent for a collaborative album and tour caused me to raise an eyebrow at first. Granted, this was in the wake of Lou Reed and Metallica’s disastrous Lulu, which put a black mark on both the end of Reed’s career and the entire concept of rock and roll collaborations. And the more I thought about the pairing, the more it made sense — both Byrne and St. Vincent come off like permanent alien residents in human society, using the form of popular music as a couch for their own unique, arm’s-length observations of the world around them. Byrne once famously flipped anxiety about death into anxiety about the afterlife, describing heaven as a place where “nothing ever happens,” while St. Vincent’s “Cruel” deconstructs the societal pressures placed on women to their barest skeleton (“Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you? / If you could want that, too, then you’ll be happy”).
Despite this, Love This Giant was released to somewhat mixed reviews, with reviewers positing that the album felt less collaborative and more like Byrne molding St. Vincent’s music in his own vision. While the album is drowned in the sort of brassy, percussive world beat that has become a trademark of Byrne’s solo career, I disagree with this sentiment and feel that this is an issue of sequencing. The album’s opening track and single, “Who,” isn’t a bad song by any means, but it leaps between the two vocalists in a stilted and inorganic fashion, coming off like a Byrne B-side with St. Vincent surgically grafted in after the fact. It feels like a song designed to show off the novelty of this unusual pairing, but it doesn’t stand up very well as its own piece of songwriting.
This is where track 2 comes in to save the day. From the first moments, “Weekend in the Dust” feels like a true collaborative effort — the dense brass arrangement of pulsating trumpets, tubas and trombones is par for the course for a Byrne project, but St. Vincent’s vocals are much more tightly integrated into the rhythm, practically serving as percussion in their own right. The lyrics were clearly her doing, impressionistically describing lovers whose relationship is now devoid of mystery, all that was once alluring and intriguing having settled into dust. But most importantly of all, where “Who” stops, starts, and sputters, “Weekend in the Dust” grooves, delivering on the promise of mashing together two talents as bizarrely, awkwardly compatible as this pair. It’s the point where Love This Giant springs to life, and the remaining songs benefit from the adrenaline.
There’s something impressively cyclical about the working relationship between Byrne and St. Vincent on this album. It’s tempting to call St. Vincent the disciple to Byrne’s guru, especially since she seems to have inherited his gray hair as of lately, but that unfairly implies that she’s the only one who has something to learn. Byrne’s lyrical approach on his solo work has always verged on the unbearably precious, so it’s wonderful to see him working with an artist who paints in broader, more subtle strokes. It’s like how Janelle Monae takes clear musical inspiration from Prince, but leaves out the sexism, shows regard for the accomplishments of other humans, and releases an album only when she’s stockpiled enough quality material. But that’s another entry. Love This Giant is one of my favorite albums of 2012, and if you were turned off by “Who” (but turned on by its sexy video), I urge you to listen to the whole shebang. Once “Weekend in the Dust” kicks into gear, the journey it charts through the rest of the album is truly wonderous.