Dance Mix: Funk Meets Mrs. Marcos
The Wall Street Journal
By Jim Fusilli
19 April 2010
When I met David Byrne earlier this month at his office in SoHo here, I told him I was worried about the potential reception of "Here Lies Love" (TodoMundo), the new two-CD set he recorded with Fatboy Slim and a host of today's most interesting female vocalists. "Why?" he asked, then quickly added: "Oh yeah. It's complicated. It's difficult."
It's also a song cycle about Imelda Marcos and her childhood nanny Estrella Cumpas. The 22 songs form a narrative about Mrs. Marcos's rise to international prominence as the wife of Ferdinand Marcos, for two decades the president of the Philippines, as well as about the cast-aside life of Ms. Cumpas, to whom promises had been made. The Marcoses were alleged to have siphoned off billions of dollars during Ferdinand's regime, which ended in 1986. In the West, Mrs. Marcos, now 80 years old, may be best remembered for her 3,000 pairs of shoes found in the president's residence, the Malacañang Palace, after a revolution toppled the government. Mr. Byrne and Fatboy Slim, whose real name is Norman Cook, make no mention of the shoes: Their story ends before they were discovered.
It would be unfortunate if listeners found off-putting the subject matter or the duo's desire for the work to be taken as a whole. "Here Lies Love" is a fountain of funk and dance music that's entirely accessible, great fun and can easily be enjoyed a song at a time. Loyal Byrne fans will find its precedent in early '80s Talking Heads' funk works as well as in Mr. Cook's electronic dance hits. The British musician Tom Gandey, who's known professionally as Cagedbaby, is a major contributor, playing keyboards and producing some of the tracks.
Much of the magic of "Here Lies Love" comes from the vocalists Mr. Byrne selected. They seem the ideal choices, their voices and attack matching the lyrics and environment, whether it's Sharon Jones on the aggressive "Dancing Together," which revisits Mrs. Marcos's trips to Studio 54, or Natalie Merchant tackling the icy melody of "Order 1081," a song in which Mrs. Marcos obsesses over minutiae while the country explodes. Nellie McKay perfectly captures the cadence of a student new to English in "How Are You?" while Tori Amos and Cyndi Lauper communicate the anguish in "Why Don't You Love Me?" Róisín Murphy's reading of "Don't You Agree?" is spectacular. The vocalists, who sing the sentiments of Mrs. Marcos, Ms. Cumpas and other women in the tale, include Allison Moorer, Santigold, Sia, Florence Welch and Shara Worden, among others. Steve Earle, who represents Ferdinand Marcos in one song, and Mr. Byrne are the male voices.
"Sometimes, it was obvious," Mr. Byrne said of his choice of singers. "Sharon was obvious. With Natalie, we needed someone who would get the psychological stuff."
He wanted Ms. Amos and Ms. Lauper to duet as Mrs. Marcos and Ms. Estrella on the song that ends the album. "They both have to get to the pain and anger," he said of the singers. "I knew Tori and Cyndi could do pain." The subtle differences in their reading of Mr. Byrne's lyrics indicate how the two characters share an emotional core forged when Mrs. Marcos was a child.
Mr. Byrne told me he was long interested in doing a project about Mrs. Marcos. He found intriguing the dichotomy of her personality. "She feels eternally an outsider," he said, "and an eternal Cinderella who finds herself at the Royal Ball." Though he's yet to meet her, he came close years ago when friends arranged an encounter. "I thought, 'What am I going to get from this?' But my friends said, 'You'll pick up something.' I started thinking about what makes that kind of person tick." Alas, Mrs. Marcos canceled. "Imelda had the flu," Mr. Byrne said.
The lyrics for "Here Lies Love" came first for Mr. Byrne, a rarity for an artist who prefers to start with a groove or a chord progression. "I had done the research and had a pile of quotations everywhere. 'There's my lyrics,' I said." He derived the title for the project from a comment by Mrs. Marcos, who said she wanted "Here Lies Love" inscribed on her tombstone.
He contacted Mr. Cook—the men share a love of dance music and a sly sense of humor—who sent back a variety of beats over which Mr. Byrne improvised melodies. Mr. Gandey was essential to making sure the compositions held together as the backing tracks were built. In addition to recording here, Mr. Byrne traveled to London, Los Angeles and Paris to supervise the vocal performances.
Mr. Byrne's liner notes to "Here Lies Love" serve as the book for the work. "In the beginning I was focused on doing it as a theatrical piece on the arts-festival circuit," he told me. "But I couldn't get enough organizations to sign on. The vibe I got was that it's too popular, too commercial in a way. I tried some Broadway people, but I found that scary. They have their own ways. It would mean letting go of the whole thing." Mr. Byrne is now deep in discussions with Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater here to produce "Here Lies Love," perhaps with Alex Timbers directing. Mr. Timbers's rock musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" is now at the Public.
"That's where we are now," Mr. Byrne said. "I love the fact that Oskar understands quite a bit of the information is verbiage that can be conveyed visually."
As wonderful an experience as "Here Lies Love" is, I wondered whether listeners still have the patience for an interlocking story they way they did during the heyday of record albums.
"The album was kind of an experiment," he said. "If you make it clear that there's a story and provide material and there's an interrelationship between the material . . . " His voice trailed off. "Every song gains in depth for being part of a whole. Are people going to understand it? Are they going to bother? I don't know."