Laurie Anderson: Big Science (Warner Bros.)

THIS IS THE avant-garde art music album for folks who generally hate the stuff. Anderson captures the rarely realized potential of modern art music and avoids its commonly committed sins.

A lot of experimental chamber performances held in lofts are even more boring than old-fashioned chamber recitals held in mansion parlors. Most of this “new music” has no content other than its own cleverness. But Anderson’s songs are actually about something: manipulative parents, dangerous airplanes, new shopping centers, ex-boyfriends and boyfriends-to-be. Moreover, she has a dynamite sense of humor that consistently deflates the pomposity so endemic to this genre. Hey, to me she sounds a lot more like Lou “Screw-you-if-you-can’t-take-a-joke” Reed than Steve “Pulse-pulse-pulse” Reich.

Actually, recent avant-garde art music has come up with some neat inventions: moving synthesizers, voices, strings and horns in and out of an identical common timbre; exaggerating the detached, automatic sounds of machines to the point of satire; recycling computerized mantric drones; resolving unlikely, uncomfortable tones into ever-expanding harmonies; crossing rhythms with cold, mathematical precision; using elliptical association to leap ahead through verbal and musical progressions. Anderson, though, is one of the few artists to use these inventions not as ends in themselves but as a means to something else.

That something else is an utterly unsentimental look at human relationships and the way we deflect each other with catch-phrases. ‘O Superman’, for all its puns, is the scariest, truest look at emotional fascism since Elvis Costello’s ‘Two Little Hitlers’. Though her lyrics are full of funny, biting satire, her vocals and keyboards impart the stubborn sense that honesty is possible, even necessary. As she breaks down speech into repeating breaths and odd phrase fragments, she breaks down the familiar deceptive patterns but never loses the credibility of ordinary talk. Her Farfisa organ and OBXa synthesizer create hypnotic pulsing patterns that absorb all attention.

This is Anderson’s debut album, though she has contributed to poetry records and art magazines and first attracted attention with her single, ‘O Superman’, an underground favorite here and an overground hit in England. ‘O Superman’ is on the album (though its funny flipside, ‘Walk The Dog’ is not) and is still her best work yet. Several other songs come close, though. The title cut contrasts mountain yodels and wolf calls with a glittering tour of new shopping malls in the “golden cities” where it’s “every man for himself.”

Her cut-up poetry and synthesizer drone is transformed on ‘Walking & Falling’ into an affecting two-minute love song. ‘Born, Never Asked’ has few words, but Anderson’s violin climb through surprising changes establishes her as a musician as well as a wordsmith. ‘Example #22’ is the one lapse into avant-garde self-indulgence. The album ends with a medley of ‘Let X=X’ and ‘It Tango’. Held together by deliberate party handclaps and bridged by George Lewis’ trombone solos, the songs mirror the way men and women talk past each other. First it’s funny. Then too close to home.

© Geoffrey HimesMusician, July 1982

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