By Gavin Haynes
3 April 2010
A glittering array of talent assemble for a complex paean to a former dictator's wife.
She had The Beatles hounded out of her country because they didn't come to lunch at her palace. She used to dance with Andy Warhol at Studio 54. She gave a metaphysical speech to the UN about a philosophy that combines all-encompassing beauty and Pacman. She recently phoned up David Byrne and asked to sing lead vocals on his new record about her life. Imelda Marcos is pretty damned rock'n'roll. She was also the power behind the throne of a repressive regime that murdered dissidents and embezzled a few hundred million dollars from her shit-poor subjects, but hey - no-one's perfect, right?
David Byrne understands this. Which is why he doesn't want to talk about the shoes. The one image stencilled into the popular imagination regarding 'The Iron Butterfly' is of victorious revolutionaries storming the Presidential Palace in the dying days of her husband's regime, and discovering the 2,700 pairs of shoes she owned. The shoes are symbols of a decadence that leaves the French Bourbon monarchs for dust. Yet, in constructing a five-years-in-the-making, 89-minute, 22-song musical about Imelda Marcos' life, powered by Fatboy Slim and the cream of lady-singing talent (Florence Welch, Santigold, Tori Amos, Martha Wainwright), Byrne doesn't even mention them. He's canny like that. The former Talking Head has described himself as borderline-Asperger's: a hyper-thinker with little time for the niceties of human social interaction, but he actually seems to possess buckets of empathy. Empathy he's used to turn what could have been panto into a highly complex portrait of his quarry.
In (very, very) brief: 'Here Lies Love' is a proto-disco concept album/musical that follows a loose narrative of Marcos' life, from impoverished country girl raised in a garage until her flight into exile aboard a US chopper bound for Hawaii. Against this story, Byrne pitches a counterpoint: Estrella Cumpas, the girl who was Marcos' childhood nanny and confidante. When Imelda rises to power, she's cast aside and suffers the worst of the Marcos regime before eventually being placed under house arrest by her ex-friend. Confused already? Well just in case you missed anything, there's a handy 100-page book in which Byrne annotates all his lyrics.
The concept's given life by that genuinely glittering cast of female stars (and Steve Earle), singing as Imelda and Estrella, taking one song apiece (the only reprise is Amos and Cyndi Lauper, who share a duet). So you get Florence free to belt it on the opening overture 'Here Lies Love'. Martha Wainwright feys-up a Disney ballad ('The Rose of Tacloban'), wherein Marcos tells of flicking through pictures of elegant ladies in glamour magazines, "cutting out their faces and replacing them with my own".
It doesn't all stick. Santigold seems slightly hamstrung by the jittering verses of 'Please Don't'. Sometimes the backing is too beige, or the tunes just fall flat - both Sia and Camille have to make do with wispy little placeholders. Often the marriages are heavenly: Róisín Murphy purr-growls her way through 'Don't You Agree?', cheekily abetted by some of Moloko's signature staccato sleaze-horns.
Throughout, there are Byrne's signature shifting, Afrobeat-tinged polyrhythms, and his fey way with a melody. Under his direction, Fatboy Slim is in heaven, happily parping out sketches of the sort of slowed-down funk-based disco that predates the moment Donna Summer first felt love - a musical form chosen because of Marcos' jetsetting involvement in the Studio 54 scene.
Last year, Fatboy's Brighton Port Authority proto-disco seemed like just another mis-step in his long series of attempts to get his mojo back in search of hooks. Here, Byrne's well-plotted tunes can rule, and Norm can keep himself in the background, going against his natural tendency to overstuff.
After an hour and a half of historical revisionism, the greatest volte-face we're left with is one that will terrify some and exhilarate others. That it may be cool to like David Byrne again. That, far from simply being a bicycling-enthusiast building-thwacking architecture-ponce who guffs up unlisteneable audiocollage with Brian Eno, he's a guy who can fill you with joy. After The Knife's 'Tomorrow, In A Year', it seems that the sprawling concept record is putting in a big showing in 2010, as artists fight back against iTunes' pick'n'mix age. Delayed gratification. Becoming engrossed. These are pleasures too. If you listen to one pseudo-opera taking a complex look at a controversial historical figure this year, make it The Knife; if you fancy two, add this to your list.