Unlikely muses but exceptional music
By Jay Lustig
2 April 2010
Not since “Joey,” Bob Dylan’s poetic ballad about mobster Joey Gallo, or maybe “Jerry Springer: The Opera” has such an unlikely person been immortalized in song.
“Here Lies Love” — a 22-song double album by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, dance-music hitmaker Fatboy Slim and a cast of vocalists ranging from Tori Amos to Steve Earle — was inspired by Imelda Marcos, the disgraced former first lady of the Philippines.
Marcos, of course, became a pop-culture punchline in the ’80s due to her enormous shoe culture. But Byrne and Fatboy Slim aren’t looking for jokes. This is a serious song cycle about the glories and pitfalls of ambition, sung from the points of view of both Marcos and her servant, Estrella Cumpas. The only reference to shoes is in the line, “Sometimes I had no shoes,” from “Every Drop Of Rain,” a song about Marcos’ impoverished upbringing.
Despite its considerable conceptual ambition, the album finds Byrne reconnecting with his pop roots in a big way. He hasn’t made as instantly enjoyable an album since Talking Heads disbanded.
A lover of dance music, Marcos had a disco installed in the palace she shared with Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos during his years in power. In a nod to that, most of the songs are set to buoyant dance beats.
The lyrics are sometimes dark. For instance, “Why Don’t You Love Me?” is about the final collapse of the relationship between the two women, and in the sardonic “American Troglodyte,” Filipinos look at United States culture with wonder and puzzlement. But the tone of the music is almost always bright.
“American Troglodyte” is the only track sung in its entirety by Byrne. He also duets with Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond on one song, but the rest are sung by other artists. And every guest vocalist except Earle (playing Ferdinand Marcos) is female. The roster ranges from Byrne contemporaries like Kate Pierson (of the B-52s) and Cyndi Lauper to younger artists like Nellie McKay, St. Vincent, Nicole Atkins and Sia.
You’ll have to exert some effort to piece together the story line and figure out which character is singing each song. (The liner notes help immensely). But most songs are perfectly enjoyable in their own right, anyway.