Look Into The Eyeball
By: Eric Greenwood
Following the demise of the Talking Heads, David Byrne flew under the radar for a few albums, suffering from the same disease that has plagued so many lead singers of legendary bands. This disease often forces former lead singers to join forces with The United Colors of Benetton and record some multicultural mish mash of an album that is sure to alienate their established commercial audience. It’s up to you whether you think Sting or Paul Simon fared any better than David Byrne in their early solo years, but let’s agree that Byrne didn’t really get back on track until his self-titled album in 1994.
1997’s Feelings improved David Byrne’s solo standing even more, revealing hints of former greatness both visually and musically. He found a way to fuse his non-sequiturs with modern pop while also incorporating his love for non-Western music and deadpan irony. Look Into The Eyeball brings Byrne full circle. It’s easily on par with his former band (well"the latter years, anyway). Rife with strings and lush orchestration, Look Into The Eyeball is by far Byrne’s finest solo album. The production is compact and buoyant, allowing Byrne to walk through a sonic wonderland of sorts, where doo-wop and funk and Latin and soul all huddle together in a string of exquisite melodies.
The highly percussive “U.B. Jesus” exemplifies Byrne’s perfectly crafted pop sensibility and tricky tongue. Unexpected melodies fuse together in a gospel-tinged sing-along, which pecks at Christianity blithely. What other white man could get away with a chorus of “Shine on Sister?” Byrne"s loopy, cartoonish voice drives "The Revolution"- a lovely duet between a violin and an acoustic guitar. And on "The Great Intoxication" Byrne"s polyrhythmic tendencies syncopate with languid string arrangements, over which he references himself in odd little epithets: "who disco, who techno, who hip hop, who be bop, who"s been playing records in his bedroom?"
Brevity is the key to Look Into The Eyeball, as several songs clock in at less than three minutes. With his notoriously sporadic output (one album every four years or so), you"d think Byrne would have much more to say. Thirty-eight minutes barely qualifies as a full length these days. But Byrne"s always been a sharp observer, assimilating massive amounts of culture and art and piecing it all together in neatly packaged bits of quirky pop- like the jaunty acoustic funk of "Like Humans Do." On this track Byrne mines similar territory to that of his former band musically, while lyrically he stares wide-eyed at his fellow man like an alien walking in the shoes of a human for the first time: "I"m breathing in/I"m breathing out/so slip inside this funky house."
It"s hard not want to dance or at least wriggle around awkwardly to Byrne"s off-kilter sense of rhythm. "Broken Things" incorporates metallic percussion and a subdued horn section while a slow funk pushes the song forward led by a sneaky fretless bass line and Byrne"s lopsided vocal. The sparseness and semi-seriousness of "The Accident" showcases Byrne"s penchant for melodies that burn themselves into your frontal lobes. The string arrangement is gorgeously ominous too- an album highlight. However, the culturally friendly "Desconocido Soy" tries too hard. This Spanish duet with NRU is slightly off-putting largely because of NRU"s somewhat grating vocal. But at two minutes and thirty-nine seconds who can complain? David Byrne has earned a pass for such small indulgences.
The album sets itself straight very quickly, though, with the laid-back soul of "Neighborhood." It sounds like a genuine song off a 1970"s blaxploitation soundtrack until Byrne"s instantly recognizable lilt breezes in to spread a little mayonnaise on that piece of wheat bread. Lyrically, Byrne is still the same geeky academic with a childish curiosity that he"s always been, though, perhaps, less obvious in his cynicism. "Walk On Water" tries to contradict what I"ve just stated, fusing irony and common sense in a narrative about a clueless and indulgent rock star. Byrne is less judgmental than he would have been twenty years ago, but it"s not a case of mellowing out- he"s just wiser. He shows how far-removed he is from such a world of unabashed egotism with pithy, deadpan statements: "he can walk on the water but he can"t stop falling in/he"s living underwater but he don"t know how to swim."
"Everyone"s In Love With You" closes the album with what seems like a sentimental ode on the surface but reveals itself to be a puzzling amalgam of weirdness and melody: "I"m jealous and a little proud/I want to kill and kiss you too/you belong to everyone who meets you/everyone"s in love with you." The plonking percussion coupled with a straightforward guitar jangle shows a stripped down version of Byrne"s formula at its best. Look Into The Eyeball isn"t going to get Byrne"s mug back on the cover of Time, nor is it going to surpass any of his greatest achievements with the Talking Heads. It will, however, secure his status as a vital solo artist whose well is far from dry.