You’ve just purchased Here Lies Love. You open the elaborately decorated gatefold to find two CDs and a 20-some-odd-page booklet, which promises “a song cycle about Imelda Marcos & Estrella Cumpas.” Marcos is the parasol-toting socialite who gazes up from the cover; she was also the jetsetting wife of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, infamous for living in opulence while her people languished in poverty. (As a critic, I’m obligated to mention the fact that Imelda Marcos acquired 3,000 pairs of shoes, but if you want to know anything more about the Marcos regime, or Corazon Aquino and the People Power Movement that ended it, well, that’s what Wikipedia’s for.) And it’s a dance record. How did you come to possess such a strange item? And who could be responsible for it?
It goes like this: Talking Head David Byrne teams up with Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook, which kind of looks like slumming since Byrne presides like a Pope over the current crop of art-rock upstarts, while Cook hasn’t grabbed much spotlight since making Christopher Walken his weapon of choice back in ‘01. They make an intriguingly odd duo, but theirs aren’t the only names on the marquee. Variously giving voice to Imelda and Estella is a dream team of divas. Most are making their first foray into dance music, though some, like, Santigold, have no need to prove their fabulousness. Speaking of which: a disco-ready Cyndi Lauper/Tori Amos duet about the pains of unrequited love? Just pressing play on that track should cause a gay club to spontaneously form around the listener, or at the very least, body glitter to fall from the ceiling.
So, yeah, the roster’s promising and the concept is offbeat enough to be brilliant. The execution? It could have been a lot more inspired. Unless you come to the record already a die-hard fan of each and every one of the guest vocalists, you’re going to find yourself skipping around in search of highlights. Worse: Said highlights aren’t always easy to find.
And that’s not because Love lacks quality material. But Bryne’s compositions bleed together in a bad way, as nearly every track is bedecked with strings, horns, and Latin percussion, a kind of soul-meets-salsa aesthetic. Slim’s beats fare a little better. He goes for moderate 4/4 shuffles on track one and stays there for most of both discs. That’s the fate of act one, for example, which drifts off into the midtempo doldrums as soon as Lauper wraps up “Eleven Days” with welcome, albeit incongruous, verve.
To some extent, the choice of beats and backdrops makes sense: With vocalists alternating on every song, Byrne and Cook have a story to tell, and they needed some way to make their project sound like something more than an ambitious mixtape. Fair enough, but it’s not as though their biographical aspirations had to be this much of a straitjacket. They’re telling a story that spans decades, continents, and characters—and they couldn’t dramatize any of that narrative dynamism by mixing up their approach with a bit more frequency? Too many good tracks, like Allison Mooerer’s “When She Passed By” or Natalie Merchant’s “Order 1081,” feel listless just because they sound too much like their neighbors.
Where Love does lurch to life, it owes its spark less to the musical machinations of Byrne and Slim than to a handful of exceptional performances from their guest stars. The title track does disco Disney-style, candy-coating Slim’s four-on-the-floor hustle with gooey layers of violin while Florence Welch (here appearing sans Machine) gives a doe-eyed read to Imelda’s last wishes: “I know that when my number’s up/When I am called by God above/Don’t have my name inscribed into the stone/Just write: Here lies love.”
If that track lends an affecting, elegiac sweep to the first disc, “Dancing Together” positively ignites the second. Where too many of the vocalists on Love favor a polished delivery, Sharon Jones elevates her piece with a characteristically raw performance. Besides, hearing the retro-soul stalwart lay it down on a modern club cut is something of a delight in itself. Elsewhere, Santigold’s funky, flanger-heavy “Please Don’t” namedrops Mao and Kissinger; though the lyrics are political, the song works because Santigold, like every great heartbroken disco queen since Gloria Gaynor, knows how to make desperation sound, somehow, like fun.
It’s too bad, then, that Byrne and Slim didn’t allow themselves more uptempo digressions. Particularly disappointing is the final half of disc two, which makes no attempt to match the climax of the Marcos story at the musical level. Some may admire the restraint entailed in eschewing a true Broadway finish for this indie-Evita, but I happen to think that 90 minutes of patience entitles a listener to a proper finale—or at least some appreciable buildup. In that respect, Love makes the case that the sprawling concept album shtick should be left to the prog rockers: Committed as the Mars Volta/Dream Theater types are to broaching new frontiers of self-indulgence, they at least understand that, when making an expansive musical epic, you either go for broke or go somewhere else.