A hymn to the Iron Butterfly
The Globe and Mail
By Brad Wheeler
6 April 2010
Don’t cry for her, Manila – dance instead.
Back in the day, Imelda Marcos, the parasol-twirling dictator’s wife, loved the nightlife. (Like singer Alicia Bridges, she “got to boogie on the disco ’round, oh yeah.”) And now the former first lady, who, with her husband Ferdinand, did the million-dollar hustle to her home country, is the subject of a peculiar double-disc disco album conceived by Talking Heads founder and cultural bounce-about David Byrne.
In collaboration with Norman Cook (a.k.a. Fatboy Slim, the clubby-dance maven) and an enviable cast of pop singers, Byrne has produced a work that not only tells Imelda’s story but celebrates the art of the album as well. The 22-song cycle, sung with élan, is carried by a melodramatic narrative written by the light-handed Byrne. Unfortunately, the score – dance beats, synthetic swirls, theatrical ballads, orchestral flourishes and percussive Latin grooves – is outlasted by the story, with musical ideas exhausted by the time Marcos gets through half of her thousands of shoes.
The album’s first disc, however, is almost always wonderful: Samba piano gives pizzazz to How Are You? and Every Drop of Rain, the latter a duet sung charmingly by Candie Payne and St. Vincent, who inhabit the roles of Imelda and Estrella Campus. Here Lies Love is very concerned with this relationship. Housekeeper Estrella, though not much older than the young Imelda, is a mother figure as well as a friend. The pair’s paths cross continually as years go by.
Disco music, in its heyday, was about survival – remember the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive and Gloria Gaynor’s hit avowal I Will Survive? The Marcos story is marked by this same ladder-climbing instinct. The whirlwind wooing of Imelda by Ferdinand is born more out of career-building than blinding love. The lightly funky Eleven Days, saucily sung by Cyndi Lauper, describes the short courtship. Another winning track, Irish singer Roisin Murphy's Eurythmics-styled Don't You Agree?, is Imelda’s rationalization for her husband’s strongman ways.
Like the Marcos regime and mirror balls, the album format may have run its course. For all the romantic notions applied to long-playing records, rarely is there much of a conception involved in their making. An album, more often than not, is a collection of songs written and recorded over a specific period of time – no themes to be had. Byrne’s aim, as spelled out in the deluxe booklet-and-DVD version of Here Lies Love, is to create a series of songs that play off each other, with repeating characters and a story told not by a succession of events, but by a series of emotions.
Those loaded emotions are often drawn directly from the Iron Butterfly herself. The album’s title is exactly the phrase she wants on her tombstone. And as sure as Imelda Marcos loves her country and her shoes, Byrne loves the album. Try it on for size.