A GARBAGE disposal with indigestion, glub-glubbing on a smooshed Jiffy Pop foil bubble or a gluish wad of Captain Crunch, is not a pretty sight. Nothing to do but forcefeed the bugger an electric snake, toss down a Draino chaser, and hope for the best.
But what to do when your favorite pop star starts tossing up turkey? In pop as in automotive maintenance, retreads lead to bald spots, and bald spots lead to wipeouts. Laurie Anderson’s latest, the soundtrack to her rockumentary Home Of The Brave, finds Anderson still chewing on the same plug she bit off in 1982 with Big Science. Lyrically, the ground covered here is as well-worn as the Houston Astrodome’s artificial turf, and nearly as plastic.
On recent vinyl outings – 1984’s Mister Heartbreak, and the whammer-jammer four-disk United States Live (originally recorded in 1983) – the artist has shown a disconcerting tendency to drag out old ideas and bullyrag them for awhile. In ‘New Jersey Turnpike’, a collection of non-sequiturs set to music, a fragment runs, “Why these mountains? Why this sky? Why this road? This big town. This ugly train.” On Mister Heartbreak, in ‘Gravity’s Angel’, Anderson sings, “Why these mountains? Why this sky? This long road? This empty room?” And that’s not all. ‘So Happy Birthday’, also on United States Live, strings together snippets from ‘Born, Not Asked’, ‘Walking and Falling’, ‘Dog Show’, and ‘From The Air’, hanging them out to dry like so much conceptual laundry. And there they flap, soggy and disjuncted, severed from any context they might’ve had.
Lamentably, the eight numbers on Home of the Brave – six new (‘Smoke Rings’, ‘White Lily’, ‘Talk Show’, ‘Radar’, ‘Talk Normal’, ‘Credit Racket’), and two old (‘Language Is A Virus’, ‘Sharky’s Night’) – are more of the same, rehashing catch phrases and time-worn tropes like a cat worrying a rat. The tape bow violin takes its bow on ‘Late Show’. replaying William Burroughs’ voice growling a line from ‘Sharky’s Night’. And the obligatory dream sequences pop up time and again, most jarringly on ‘Smoke Rings’. Anderson informs, “Well I had a dream/and in it I went to a little town/and all the girls in town were named Betty.” Huh? Put on your thinking caps and puzzle your pointy little semiotic heads over that one, class.
Much of Anderson’s work – on Home Of The Brave as well as other LPs – boils down to witty one-liners held together by musical Super Glue. Perhaps she’s banking on her trump card, repetition, hoping it will provide the leitmotif missing from her work. It doesn’t. Thomas McEvilley, writing in a March ’84 issue of Artforum, let loose this broadside: “Over the years, Anderson has recycled the same texts…and (her career retrospective exhibition) followed her lead – I saw one language ‘bit’ in five different places, the dates ranging from 1972 to 1983. The result is to make a slender body of work look fat. If the texts were deeper or sharper one would not mind their constant repackaging, and could be more appreciative of the cleverness of the package, but they are, after all, just the rather lightweight, caught-in-a-loop, hip posturing, familiar from United States (where many of the old texts resurfaced).”
Musically, Home Of The Brave continues Mister Heartbreak‘s wood block-coconut shell exoticisms layering gospel backing vocals onto shuddering drum humps and Belew bellowings. Anderson’s handling of muted talk-overs is surest; ‘White Lily’ and ‘Talk Show’, with their delicate arpeggios, haunting fog of reverb, and koan-like lyrics, stand out as the LP’s gems.
The reworked versions of ‘Language Is A Virus’ and ‘Sharky’s Night’, however, pale in comparison to the originals. Stripped of its “Difficult Listening” intro, its pentatonic sax licks mired in a muddy mix, ‘Language’ lacks the oomph of the United States Live version. ‘Sharky’s Night’, shorn of Burroughs’ bullfrog snigger, devolves into a toothless loop. Although production, for the most part, is cracker-jack, and the playing is sure and assertive. Anderson’s melodic ideas cover little new ground.
Despite Home Of The Brave‘s shortcomings, there’s no doubt that Anderson has been and can again be brilliant; her most mediocre ventures still stand head and shoulders above most of today’s pop shlock. It’s just that we’ve come to expect so much – may be too much – from the woman who got her start playing violin while perched on melting blocks of ice or orchestrating honking cars. Anderson’s finest moments – the creepy, crawly ‘Difficult Listening Hour’, the anthemic ‘Big Science’, the ditzy ‘Walk The Dog’, to name just a few – are so good that dippy dreams about Bettysville just don’t compare. Listening to Anderson’s latest, one realizes the power of her voice. Sexy as a stuck zipper yet icily asexual, it lies at the core of her best work and buoys her worst. Fed through a battery of vocoders, harmonizers and digital delays, it remains her most sophisticated tool. Sibilant, half-whispering, it seduces like the slithy come-on of some robotic cobra, and we love it. Now if only it had something to say…
© Mark Dery, International Musician And Recording World, 1985