THE ALBUM -- Brian Eno and David Byrne, "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," Sire SRK 6093.
Rock's most drearily sober eggheads, David Byrne and Brian Eno, have finally prevailed over their sundry legal and logistical problems to release the long-awaited opus, "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts." Long-awaited because it was roughly two years in the making, but also because many of those in the know expected the Eno-Byrne experiment to be the greatest collaboration since the Curies went twosies with a test tube.
Far be it from me to rain on their proleptic parade; for my money, "Ghosts" is everything one could expect from this kind of creative equation.
The sum is neither greater nor lesser than its parts. Constant A: David Byrne, who, as leader of Talking Heads, combined black rhythms with punk nonsensibilities to produce dance music for white intellectuals. Constant B: Brian Eno, a technological (not to mention sociological) genius who took your basic industrial-strength Muzak, added a lot more synthesizer and tape-loop action, called it "environmental music" and sat back to watch the public clamor for more.
The attraction was obvious. Byrne admired Eno's considerable studio techniques almost as fiercely as he longed to escape the post-punk vacuum threatening to swallow up Talking Heads. Eno deftly volleyed the compliment: What made Talking Heads' music worthy of his attention, he explained with only the teeniest hint of condescension, was that "you can Hoover to it."
The rest, as they say, is history. Or physics, at the very least. "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" is nothing if not a manifesto of art for science's sake. So clean and clinical is the production, so antiseptic the funky, Afro-flavored arrangements that you could eat off the grooves. And computing the x-variable is no sweat, either, even for mental pygmies who like pop music.
Tapes. It's that simple, that profound. Tapes of radio evangelists preaching hell-fire-and-brimestone, tapes of Algerian Muslims chanting Qu'ran; tapes of vulcan-voiced radio hosts, tapes of unctuous, silver-tongued pols; tapes of a splendid Lebanese mountain singer and tapes of a not-so-splendid Egyptian pop crooner. The piece de resistance , the coup de grace : a tape of an unidentified exorcism (New York, September 1980).
This conceptual apple no doubt conked the crania of both Byrne and Eno on the same earthward plummet. But the impact is no less jarring for its inevitability.
In fact, the music itself seems a little stunned. The painstaking effort of matching "found" art with instrumental backing results in an objectivity admirable for its lack of sensationalism (although it lacks compassion as well); but the determination to keep the taped elements front and center relegates the music to the understated role of aural backdrop.
Which is too bad, since, curiously enough, it is the music that keeps this album from being merely some sort of vinyl documentary. Tim Wright's click bass, the can and bass drum of Prairie Prince and the punchy bass-playing of Busta Jones, Bill Aswell, Eno and Byrne -- all display the rhythmic seeds of exhilaration via experimentation that later blossomed into Talking Heads' "Remain in Light." But the clinical approach to "Ghosts" precludes the natural exuberance, the give-and-take that springs from pure musical communication. In other words, it's funky but frigid.
It's also a little too self-indulgently weird, even for these two. Not weird in the spooky sense, exactly; my dog doesn't bark during the part in "The Jezebel Sprit" where devil and priest go at it once and for all, the lights don't dim and flutter. It's weird because, reluctant to take some of the extrinsic attitudes these tracks require, I get the same queasy feeling of voyeurism, even of a sort of moral imperialism, that I used to get watching those "Mondo" movies in the '60s.
This is not an inappropriate reaction, I suspect. "My life in the Bush of Ghosts" is based on Amos Tutuola's book by the same title, in which a young man ventures from his native village to explore the alien ways of the outside world, thereby discovering the true value of his own life experience, etc.
For all its interesting moments and its unfailing commitment to solve musical riddles empirically, "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" ultimately raises more questions than it answers. In the wake of the Eno/Byrne partnership, will Talking Heads split like an angry atom? Is "found music" merely a fad, or an actual trend? Do Eno and Byrne have a sequel in mind, and if so, is it live or is it Memorex? Can this marriage be saved?