By Joe Tangari
There are several reasons not to underestimate David Byrne. Though best known for his eccentric, anxious vocals and tangential lyrics with Talking Heads, his body of work is one of the most diverse in rock, ranging from his groundbreaking projects with Brian Eno, to his music for stage and theater, to his compilations which made 60s tropicalia a universally recognized genre, to his screenwriting, directing and scoring for film and video projects, Byrne has pushed himself to invent and innovate in every possible medium. But even as he's constantly evolved as an artist, he's held true to one consistent element, and that's rhythm. Nearly all of his music-- and particularly his last solo work, Look Into the Eyeball-- has held some connection to the motion of what most writers generically refer to as "world music;" in Byrne's case it's specifically the music of West Africa and Latin America.
Though rhythm is hardly absent from his latest work, Lead Us Not into Temptation, it's by no means a dominant force in the music-- for this and several other reasons, this album represents an entirely new chapter in Byrne's book (it's also the first in years not to sport his Luaka Bop label's logo). The primary reason that this album is so different from anything he's done so far is probably that it's a soundtrack, and the mood of the film has to dictate the mood of the music. Byrne has scored several films in the past-- he even won an Academy Award for his collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su on the score for The Last Emperor in 1988-- but the post-noir drama of Scottish filmmaker David MacKenzie's Young Adam presents a very different challenge for a composer than Byrne has faced in the past.
To say Byrne is up to the task doesn't do him justice; Temptation is strong enough to stand with any of Byrne's other solo work, that rare film score that works beautifully as an entirely separate record. With the exception of the Twin Peaks jazz-noir of "Seaside Smokes" and the fantastic, sax-heavy arrangement of Mingus' "Haitian Fight Song", the album is stuffed with glassy, stately, almost static music that feels closer to Rachel's or recent Friends of Dean Martinez than Talking Heads or Feelings. Most of the film is set on a Scottish river barge, and the music captures the damp chill of the Scottish air and the fog rolling off the moors and lochs of the Highland countryside in the morning.
Byrne reportedly employed Cage-ian techniques-- such as dictating which notes could be played, but not when-- to develop the majority of these pieces. The approach keeps things moving at a sharp clip, ensuring that virtually none of the disc's tracks become predictable or tired. "Sex on the Docks" is decidedly unerotic, but it still has a sense of tension and climax that befits its title, as rushing piano figures and harshly strummed acoustic guitar chase heaving cellos and violas. The mix of hurdy gurdy and accordion provided by John Somerville and Appendix Out's Alasdair Roberts in the middle of the song also make for an unsettling texture.
Several of the string-dominated pieces are just flat-out pretty, each nudged subtly by percussion and drum programming, and none of them sound overtly similar to each other, despite that some of them even share recurring melodic themes. Byrne's guitar playing throughout the album is masterfully restrained, and it's enough to make you wonder why more people don't praise him for his playing. His lap steel on "The Lodger" is ghostly an ephemeral, another layer in the fog of a work that at first might be mistaken for one of Stars of the Lid's ambient drones, but is soon joined by swelling strings and a voluptuous cello motif.
There are two vocal songs placed at the very end of the album, and each fits beautifully with the candor of the album. The first, "Speechless", is centered around a strange moan-- Byrne using his voice more like a violin than traditional vocals. "The Great Western Road" is more straightforward, a precisely metered slow song with Byrne in top form vocally and lyrically. The opening lines, "A man sticks his fingers inside of his mouth/ The words are stuck in there/ He fishes them out," are the best glimpse of the Byrne we've known and loved.
It's a fair bet that the concept of using Scottish musicians to score a film set in the Scottish heartland (the record features contributions from members of Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai, Snow Patrol, The Reindeer Section, Future Pilot AKA, and others) appealed to Byrne because of his own heritage-- he spent the first seven years of his life in Dumbarton before his family relocated to Baltimore. The final result is nearly an hour of arresting music that we might not have exactly expected from him, but that nonetheless functions as a fitting tribute to his homeland, as well as an effective mood piece. It seems a safe bet that this is more a detour for Byrne than a new direction, but it shouldn't be overlooked for that. Lead Us Not into Temptation is a powerful recording, and yet another engrossing chapter in an inestimably great career.