Employing the same form-filling record-by-mail system that produced his recent collaboration with Brian Eno, David Byrne embarks on his latest venture with help from St. Vincent (née Annie Clark), a less accomplished artist than both Byrne and Eno, but one who’s capable of lending him some modern relevance. Their partnership likely has something to do with the product of his last creative alliance, the cast-of-thousands Love Lies Here, developed with Fatboy Slim, which told the story of Imelda Marcos through a patchwork assemblage of female vocalists. Clark was one of them, and here she gets a much larger spotlight, a May-November partnership that results in a spate of interesting moments, but largely dies on the vine.
Like 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, which took on the mixed topic of humanity and technology through a pronounced gospel influence, Love This Giant has its own prevailing themes, with a concerted focus on surfaces, appearances, and societal mores, dominated musically by an endless parade of brass, from ringing trumpet bursts to soggy saxophone licks. Some songs are fronted by Byrne, some by Clark, a few have both dueling over vocals, but beyond the fact that each wrote their own lyrics, there’s not a distinct sense of demarcation between their generally separate songs. The biggest problem is that the all-horns concept is never developed beyond omnipresent scaffolding, which means that many tracks end up being dominated by redundant, irritatingly rudimentary backgrounds, resulting in songs that feel sluggish and often exceedingly ugly.
Prime offenders include “Weekend in the Dust,” a cluttered mishmash of whizzing horns and repetitive vocals, and “The Forest Awakes,” all chugging fanfares and electronic pulses. The album may have been developed through an in-transit collaboration defined by an email-fueled back and forth, but it sounds more like Byrne and Clark’s vocals were recorded and then given over to some feckless producer, so subjected are they to onslaughts of tepid, merciless instrumentation.
Byrne fares slightly worse in this atmosphere, because while Clark’s air of incipient mystery brings down the tenor of blatancy, his broadly sketched narratives only seem more obvious when swaddled in brass. The vaguely political dinner-party allegory of “Dinner for Two” falls flat, as does “I Should Watch TV,” though the glorious introductory horn swells on that song prove to be one of the rare instances of the album fulfilling its promise.
Byrne should be commanding things here, but he seems inhibited, affecting a different voice than his usual quizzically bemused, preternaturally effusive character. This mischievous identity peeks through on bouncy tracks like “The One That Broke Your Heart,” but again the horns get in the way, tracked so heavily on top of each other that they create an impenetrable thicket of busy noise. By the same token, Clark’s songs are less defined and more indistinct, often coming across as wispy and insubstantial. Love This Giant has its share of promising elements, but as a collaborative project, it’s far less than the sum of its two parts.