In 2009 former Talking Heads frontman and avant-garde rock star David Byrne collaborated with the experimental rock group Dirty Projectors to produce a song for the charity compilation album Dark Was the Night; Byrne’s post-Heads career has been built on such collaborations with artists such as Celia Cruz, Fatboy Slim and Brian Eno. At a benefit for the album Byrne met songstress Annie Clark, who has been performing to critical acclaim as St. Vincent since 2007, and in June the two released the song “Who,” which would be the first single from a collaborative album titled Love This Giant, released Sept. 11.
For better or worse, David Byrne’s voice literally and metaphorically dominates the sound of Love This Giant. Because of the horn-centric nature of the album, some of Clark’s greatest strengths as St. Vincent – her guitar and her widely varied instrumentation and songwriting styles – are left behind; meditations on modern everyday life, presented with a vocal prowess and conviction from Byrne not seen since his time with Talking Heads, are at the forefront here. “Wanted to know what folks were thinking / To understand the land I live in / And I would lose myself / and it would set me free,” sings Byrne on “I Should Watch TV” as he tries to connect to the artificial world around him. In “Dinner for Two,” he lyrically channels the Talking Heads classic “Life During Wartime,” nonchalantly asking for a date as a bourgeois dinner party is disrupted by “Tanks outside the bedroom window” and guests behind couches cower from “small-arms fire.”
Though overshadowed in terms of attention by Byrne and somewhat restricted by the form of the album, St. Vincent is able to show off the wide color and emotional range of her voice. In the soul and funk of “Weekend in the Dust” and the sincerity of “Ice Age” (written solely by Clark) and “Optimist,” both of which feature Clark as the vocal lead, St. Vincent pines and wonders with grace and beauty.
Many of the songs are presented as dialogues between Byrne and St. Vincent, a form that likely came from the writing process of the album, which was conducted largely via e-mail. In the lead single “Who,” for example, Byrne sings the dissociative questions of each verse while St. Vincent repeatedly asks, “Who is an honest man?” The music video for the single amplifies the conversational effect of the alternating singers as Byrne and Clark, two parties in a car crash, sing these questions to each other.
Somewhat surprisingly, the horn section, whose presence represents not just the major stylistic force on the album, but also its genesis (the album began as a single concert accompanied by a small brass ensemble) is neither overwhelming nor gimmicky. Byrne and Clark are able to utilize combinations of almost 40 tubas, trumpets, French horns and saxophones to produce sounds that vary from Latin riffs in “Who,” to fanfare at the end of the each verse of “I Should Watch TV,” to the soaring epic introduction of “Dinner For Two.” Though the pervasive use of horns makes calling the songs of Love This Giant “pop” a stretch, each one uniquely removes itself from what audiences perceive as the stereotypical symphonic or marching band music produced with these instruments, with the aid of brilliant drum programming ranging from funky breakbeats to tribal booms.
The question with any experiment is whether or not it is successful. Here the experiment is twofold: Can one of the most established and respected figures in modern music and one of today’s most exciting artists integrate their personalities and styles to make a record that works? And can they do it on the back of a brass ensemble? The answer is difficult to pin down, leaving us to look for standouts or instead an overall sound. In terms of tracks, we may only have “Who” and “Ice Age” as clear frontrunners. It’s not that the other songs are worse; they feel like a natural progression of Byrne’s sound, and St. Vincent’s voice adds a nice presence, but if you aren’t a fan of Byrne’s songwriting style, Love This Giant won’t be the album that changes your mind. Is Giant going to be remembered as a major landmark in the career of either artist? Probably not. Is it just a chance for St. Vincent to make an album with one of her heroes and for Byrne to continue to reach for relevance by partnering up with an indie rock starlet? No, there really is something more here, even if some stylistic evolution is lacking, and even if that something is just 12 fun and funky tracks.