Album review: David Byrne and Fatboy Slim: Here Lies Love
By Fiona Shepherd
30 March 2010
Of all the slightly demented creative geniuses in the pop realm, you could trust David Byrne to come up with a novel riposte to the supposed demise of the album format – but surely even he, a man last seen round these parts bouncing around on stage in a white tutu, is pushing credulity with a concept double album about Imelda Marcos, written and recorded with Fatboy Slim and intended for performance in a nightclub near you?
Here Lies Love is billed as a "song cycle about Imelda Marcos and Estrella Cumpas" – the latter being the maid who raised the young Imelda Remedios Visitacion Trinidad Romualdez – and grew out of Byrne's idea to marry the tale of Marcos's rise and fall with the music of the western nightclubs she loved to frequent. Well, if it worked for Andrew Lloyd Webber with Eva Peron…
After a year of rooting out the life story of the former first lady of the Philippines (aka the Muse of Manila, aka the Iron Butterfly), Byrne decided there was enough material to proceed with the project – and how. Fatboy Slim was approached to help shape the club-friendly soundtrack, a host of famous singers were recruited to sing the roles of Marcos and Cumpas and the whole recorded package comes with accompanying DVD and 100-page book. Now that's an artefact.
Here Lies Love could have been a massive folly. At the very least, its 90-minute running time could be a trawl. But the story is priceless, the melodies are mostly strong and memorable and the formidable cast of female singers – plus token blokes Steve Earle (singing as Ferdinand Marcos) and Byrne himself – immerse themselves entirely in their performances.
Forget Annie Lennox's Sing project, for which she assembled more than 20 of her superstar chums – this is a far more satisfying celebration of strong female voices, each one shrewdly matched by Byrne to their particular song. The cast list ranges from upcoming young talents such as Florence Welch and Santigold to established names such as Tori Amos and Natalie Merchant, encompassing the distinctive tones of Martha Wainwright, Cyndi Lauper, Róisín Murphy and the blessed Kate Pierson of The B-52s along the way.
The story unfolds with straightforward eloquence and a clear dramatic arc tracing her humble beginnings, flowering beauty, desire for a favourable match, and so on. Byrne borrows many aphorisms directly from Marcos herself to portray the making of a ruthlessly ambitious, manipulative woman with an aesthetic, poetic and often plain fanciful streak. There are quirky little insights en route, such as the revelation that Marcos's fundraising team of "Blue Ladies" would pop pills to keep up with their energetic leader, or that Filipinos were so in thrall to western culture that there were rival guerrilla groups called The Monkees and The Beatles. But, conspicuously, there is not one mention of the shoes.
The opening title track, named after Marcos's preferred epitaph, is the classic fairytale musical in microcosm, with Marcos looking back at herself as a young, relatively poor girl dreaming of a glamorous life. It's basically Don't Cry For Me Manila, featuring a melodramatic cabaret turn by Welch over lush strings and escapist disco beats.
The early songs, tracing her humble roots, the death of her mother and the emotional debt she owed to Cumpas are soundtracked by light salsa and bossa nova rhythms, before Earle brings the grit as Ferdinand, contemplating the benefits of a match with Imelda. Walk Like A Woman deals with the early, controlling days of their marriage as she struggled to master her husband's desired image of his first lady.
Tough vocals from Róisín Murphy, Alice Russell and Sharon Jones portray her transformation into persuasive negotiator – not just politically but personally. With the balance of marital power tipping in her favour, Dancing Together playfully namedrops her glamorous social circle (the lines "breakfast with George, disco with George" refer to permatanned American actor George Hamilton), while Please Don't outlines her distinctive style of "handbag diplomacy", which involved rubbing Colonel Gaddafi's leg so that "he understood my point of view".
From here, there is a sharp dip into even darker territory, including the introduction of martial law and her cold-blooded treatment of Benigno Aquino, her husband's political rival and, crucially, the lover who once spurned her for being too tall.
Even against this absorbing narrative backdrop and the closing feisty duet between Cyndi Lauper and Tori Amos, David Byrne's own vocal contribution stands out. The spindly funk of American Troglodyte concerns the don't-ask-don't-tell relationship between the US and Filipino administrations, while intimating with the lines "Americans are surfin' that internet, Americans are listenin' to 50 Cent" that little has changed in international cultural and political relations over the years.