David Byrne's post-Talking Heads career, like that of his fellow Heads, has been uneven, and decidedly low-profile if not strictly uneventful. But you gotta hand it to the guy: Never once does a Byrne album come off like he's pandering to the popular taste. You might think he fell flat on his face, you might think he didn't pull off whatever the hell it was he was trying to accomplish, but you never feel like you've been lied to. He might be inscrutable at times, but he makes up for it with almost painful self-revelation; this is, after all, a man who peppers his press releases with statements like "I am slowly overcoming the racism that was instilled in me by society" and "I think it's OK that I don't understand everything I've ever written." Would that Bono could 'fess up to similar confusion.
Byrne's careerlong trust in his own vision, even if that vision sometimes gets a little cloudy, turns back upon itself -- appropriately enough -- on Look Into the Eyeball. In a bold and uncommon move, Byrne wrote all the material and then handed 50 percent of it over to other people to arrange. Young Turk Greg Cohen (Tom Waits' bass hound) is credited alongside old hand Thom Bell (who wrote and arranged for the Stylistics and the O'Jays), indicating the range of influences and styles on Byrne's new album, and repeated listens establish that Byrne's decision to relinquish total control was right on track. Neither as musically narrow nor as laboriously produced as some of his earlier albums, Look Into the Eyeball might represent Byrne's smartest and most accomplished solo set yet. It also brings out elements in his music that tend to get obscured by Byrne's own willfully outré production.
The album's opener, "U.B. Jesus," despite its goofy title, is a sinister and edgy slink that recalls Byrne's most confident writing with the Talking Heads; of the Heads' latter-day work, only "Sax and Violins" sounded this paranoid and evil. That feel reappears on "The Great Intoxication" and Cohen's sparse arrangements on "The Accident," but it also informs lighter tracks such as "Like Humans Do," on which Byrne sings tiredly about getting stoned and watching television like it's the only option left. But here, as on recent albums, it's more about the groove than the melody. Byrne is, in fact, one of the only elder statesmen of rock who's continuing to explore the possibilities of non-Western rhythm -- real, organic rhythms produced by living people, not drum samples -- and the jittery, mostly Latin-derived grooves on Look Into the Eyeball speed the plow of his caustic observations, rather than serving as the central element.
Happily, the David Byrne on Look Into the Eyeball sounds less scattered in his concerns, and more connected to American culture, in a way he really hasn't since 1989's Rei Momo. At his best, Byrne was always a shrewd perceiver of the vicious and venal aspects of his home country, which citizenship he once renounced, and it's the mode he works in on his new album. Partly that's an effect of his delegation of authority to other arrangers. But it's also a refocusing of his own peculiar vision; Byrne here continues to look at The World, but does so specifically through the lens of American life. As he observes of the song "The Revolution," "real revolution is won by seduction, by winning over not just the mind, but the body and senses as well." Look Into the Eyeball is Byrne's first solo record to hit consistently and solidly on all three targets.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.