David Byrne and Fatboy Slim: Here Lies Love (Album Review)

Over five years ago, David Byrne met with Fatboy Slim to discuss a musical endeavor. His goal, initially inspired by the book The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński, was to tell the tale of the theatrics of royal life through music.

After stumbling on a newspaper clipping written about his soon-to-be protagonist and enlisting some of the industry’s greatest vocalists (22 in all!) to help guide her voice, the project would evolve into what became known as Here Lies Love: A concept album, DVD, book, and proposed theater experience based on the life of former first lady of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, Imelda Marcos.

I pre-ordered the complete package a few months ago having found the concept quite ‘neat.’ Two weeks ago, it arrived in my mailbox–and now, the review.

First of all, the actual Here Lies Love book is gorgeous–a 114-page narration of not only the evolution of Byrne’s original idea for the album, but the story of Imelda Marcos that he shaped with his songwriting. In the front of the book is the double-disc of the album; on the back the DVD. Each song is given its own chapter inside, including full lyrics and key connections between the songs and Marcos’ personal life. It’s quite a treat!

So what about the music? Completely apart from the narrative, the album is rife with hits as well as a fair share of misses: Highlights include Florence Welch‘s soaring, bossa nova-tinged title track, “Here Lies Love,” Sia‘s twangy, swinging “Never So Big,” Natalie Merchant‘s gorgeously sung “Order 1081,” Kate Pierson‘s “The Whole Man,” and Róisín Murphy‘s disco-licious “Don’t You Agree?”

Yet while Murphy’s song sounds like it could fit in snugly with her last effort, Overpowered, most of the other songs on the record sound nothing like that of their artist’s back catalog (not too surprising given all the tracks were penned solely by Byrne, and a few with Fatboy Slim). This reality can occasionally provide somewhat disappointing results, as with Santigold‘s pacified contribution, “Please Don’t.”

Even more problematic for me however was the nagging country influence that continued to rear its head between some of the better disco gems here, including Allison Moorer‘s “When She Passed By” and Steve Earle‘s “A Perfect Hand.” Even if they’re necessary for moving the narrative along lyrically, there’s no way I’ll be returning to those tracks.

Reading the book alongside the album helped to elevate the project to another level (which I absolutely admire and adore), but to be honest, I don’t know how much I would have enjoyed it had I opted for the “MP3 only” package. On the other hand, I suppose that’s the point. The music of Here Lies Love lends itself to a larger experience with the accompanying book and DVD.

In the introduction, Byrne acknowledges that Here Lies Love is in some ways a response to the music industry’s floundering state and an attempt to create something more for listeners: “As it is now incredibly easy to download just a single song off a new album release–or to rip just a couple of the most accessible songs–I, like many others, have wondered: How do we incentivize listeners to check out more of what we have recorded? Is it possible to have an experience of some added depth, as one sometimes does when listening to a series of songs?”

While Here Lies Love doesn’t completely have the legs to stand on its own as an album (though there are quite a few strong numbers), the charm and magic is in its complete visual, aural, and intellectual appeal.

For music fans with some cash to spare, I recommend diving into the complete Here Lies Love package–there’s a lot of rich substance for the reaping here.

Here Lies Love was released on April 6.

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