On the shoulders of giants

I’m not very good at the whole “albums of the year” thing. I only intermittently plug myself into current releases, so always miss a lot of gems and find myself playing catch-up at the end of the year. If there’s one record that grabbed me and kept me coming back for more in 2012, though, it’s Love This Giant by David Byrne and St Vincent. The songs are often as odd and misshapen as the cover art, but the hooks and the great horn arrangements bring me out in a big grin.

It happens that my favourite Christmas present this year was also David Byrne’s book How Music Works. Before I started I didn’t know much about Byrne or his career. I remember hearing his song ‘Like Humans Do’ when it was used as demo music with Windows Media Player, and I’ve always been vaguely aware of Talking Heads as a band I should know more about, but until Love This Giant I’d never really engaged with his work. Still, I found myself constantly nodding in agreement with How Music Works.

Byrne’s main thesis is that music depends on context, a truth often overlooked in favour of the myth of individual, free-floating creativity. The points he makes may not be totally new, but he expresses them extremely well, and always has the perfect illustration on hand. The book is chatty, witty and wise – the result of someone who has thought about the subject his whole life.

So I didn’t have to care about Byrne’s music to enjoy his book, but that’s not to say that the two aren’t linked. The sense of almost alien detachment that makes his explanation of, say, CDs so readable – it’s the same persona that informs ‘Like Humans Do’, as well as ‘I Should Watch TV’ on Love This Giant (Byrne has diagnosed himself with a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome, which may not be irrelevant here).

Not every musician speaks insightfully about music, but it’s a joy to find the ones that do. I love reading the surreally insightful interviews that Tom Waits invariably gives. And I remember reading Elvis Costello on songwriting, asserting that the only subjects for songs were (I’m paraphrasing here, and probably unfairly) “I miss someone, I lost something, someone died.” Sometimes musicians are most comfortable talking about themselves, it seems, when they’re talking about something else.

And by the way, Annie Clark of St Vincent is also a pretty great interviewee. Here she is being asked all the right questions by Jian Ghomeshi and giving all the right answers:

Here’s to another year of hearing, and talking about, great music. Perhaps this time I’ll manage to stay up-to-date. I doubt it.

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