He stares back at you from the cover of Laurie Anderson‘s new album, “Homeland,” his head tilted to the side as if to size you up, one enormous eyebrow raised wryly. Sporting a crooked tie and a disheveled sweater, he looks like Groucho Marx as a college professor: both silly and wise.
His name is Fenway Bergamot, and he is the longtime alter ego of Anderson, a performance artist, writer and musician based in New York. She invented the persona 30 years ago as nothing but a deep, rumbling voice, “the voice of a pompous windbag,” she explains. “It was fun to tweak people who are telling you what to do. It came out of the box every few years, and I would use that voice again and again.”
Fenway popped up unannounced while Anderson was writing songs for “Homeland,” only this time something had changed. First of all, he took on physical characteristics, namely the large eyebrows and mustache. “I was doing a photo session, and they had some eyebrows there, so I started cutting them up and putting them on. And I thought, ‘Hey, that looks like Fenway Bergamot.'”
More crucially, Anderson says, he sounded different, somehow sadder and more sagacious. He wasn’t his old blowhard self, but an arch, if rambling, observer of postmillennial America. “This time when it came out of the box, it was meandering and melancholic, and I thought, ‘This is interesting.'”
With his impossibly low voice (Anderson’s, distorted by a filter of her own devising), Fenway narrates “Another Day in America,” the centerpiece of “Homeland.” It’s a virtuoso performance, an aria of bizarre logical leaps and oddly tender ruminations about national memory.
According to Anderson, Fenway is “kind of a jump-cut character,” one that allows her to “talk in a way your mind might jump from one thing to another.”
In that regard, it’s easy to see why Fenway might appeal to Anderson, an artist whose mind is always making connections between critical and social theories, visual art, music and technology. Her career — even her life — appears to be a process of constant discovery, which can be both overwhelming and invigorating.
By Anderson’s own admission, recording “Homeland” was an unexpectedly immense undertaking for her. The album swirls together a complex mix of sounds, establishing strange juxtapositions between Anderson’s violin, the cooing vocals of singer Antony Hegarty and the otherworldly sounds of Tuvan musicians playing handmade Asian instruments.
Anderson is a methodical artist whose perfectionism enables a sense of questing discovery but often creates delays. At one point she found herself alone with a million sound files, far too many to keep in her head at once. Her husband, Lou Reed, helped her sift through and edit that immense library of ideas into coherent songs, and the result is as revelatory as it is haunting, a well-observed and strangely poignant snapshot of this moment in American history.
Although “Homeland” addresses the current financial crisis and the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is not an especially political album. It is, however, a very public album, told from constantly shifting American perspectives. “This is the way the world is now, so we thought about how there could be a little more tenderness, a little more ragged edges,” she explains. “I feel a lot of contact with people doing these songs. They’re very intimate.”
And yet, Anderson admits the album includes some of her most personal music, especially “The Lake,” an intensely affectionate song about her father. “I’ve never been a confessional singer-songwriter, but this probably comes the closest in some ways,” she explains. “I just wanted to make something for him — something very simple because he was a very simple guy.”
It’s an affecting moment on an ambitious album. “That’s what the record’s trying to be — not so perfect,” Anderson explains. “Things can’t be tied up. Our lives are just too messy. And that’s OK. I love a great mess. ‘Homeland’ is trying to express what it’s like to live in the middle of these conflicts and not try to resolve them all.”
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Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner
Photos by Noah Greenberg and Andrew Zuckerman