Concept albums often operate in ambiguous, unpredictable musical territory. On one hand, a record loosely unified by instrumental, compositional, or lyrical themes gives renewed meaning to the construction of an album, imbuing it with renewed artistic integrity and a purpose beyond the simple creation of songs. Concept albums provide a contributing role for each track to build a narrative that’s greater than any single tune alone. Albums like The Who’s “Tommy,” David Bowie’s “The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” and even Green Day’s “American Idiot” remain consistently captivating in their ability to weave music and lyrics around stories that continue to evolve even today. On the other hand, concept albums sometimes find artists overextending their creative faculties to reach toward some pretentious vision. Not all musicians can double as novelists, and unfortunately albums like Michael Jackson’s “Ben,” KISS’s “Music From The Elder,” Bob Dylan’s “Saved,” and Neil Young’s “Trans” serve as glaring reminders that concept albums often yield disastrous results.
Add “Here Lies Love” to that list. It’s a collaboration between David Byrne and Fatboy Slim that revolves around the life of Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Phillippines. Upon first glance, the album’s credentials appear spotless: two legendary musicians and producers pooling their genius on a double album featuring guest vocals from 22 of the most respected and beloved female voices in contemporary pop music. Byrne’s most recent collaboration, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” brought him together with Brian Eno for a gospel-fueled, electro-folk experiment that proved one of 2008’s finest albums. Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Norman Cook began work on “Here Lies Love” nearly five years ago, gradually debuting songs from the project, building tremendous hype and anticipation. Unfortunately, the result hardly lives up to half of what I expected. “Here Lies Love” suffers from tragically campy, generic production coupled with mediocre melodies better suited for an island-flavored sequel to “Xanadu.”
Byrne and Cook spend nearly two hours tasting the basics of other genres before settling on a sound that hardly fits either artist’s musical range. As the mood shifts from smooth jazz to bossa nova to ’80s pop bombast, one feels a sense of misguided uncertainty. No genre on display here feels completely comfortable with itself, and, by extension, the listener cannot feel completely comfortable with anything he or she is hearing. Listening through the first four tracks, I kept asking myself, “Is this supposed to be joke?” Unfortunately for “Here Lies Love,” the album’s concept hardly informs the nature of the music—that is, unless Byrne and Cook were attempting to capture the complete lack of interest any average listener has for the life of a former first lady of the Phillippines. Byrne’s notable acuity for world music appears here and there, but mostly in uninspired forms and with scarcely any of the brazen originality he typically displays in his work. Cook makes no use of his acumen for sampling and developing danceable beats, instead retreating behind a wall of tired and lamentably embarrassing production values.
The album’s opening song and title track informs any attentive listener of what to expect from the remaining 21 tracks. An ambient blend of quiet horns and orchestral swells gives way to five brief seconds of a grimy dubstep beat before Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine’s crystalline soprano introduces a squeaky-clean melody reminiscent of a Final Fantasy soundtrack, only in English and slightly more pointless. Within just a minute, heaps of seemingly limitless potential waste away to the confused whims of a useless concept.
The rest of the album seems to play out in the same discomfited manner, as numbers like “Pretty Face” and “Ladies In Blue” play out more like melodramas of the gag reflex than actual songs. “A Perfect Hand” laughably attempts to integrate a shaky jungle rhythm under a rootsy country melody courtesy of Steve Earle, with pitiful results. The album’s B side weaves into noteworthy territory on tracks like “Solano Avenue” and “Please Don’t,” allowing vocalists Nicole Atkins and Santigold, respectively, to explore the studio space beyond the painfully limited production. The Cyndi Lauper-sung “Eleven Days” also shines briefly as a disco-drenched, Scissor Sisters-esque romp through Miami Beach, but, before long, the song fades away into another theatrical nightmare.
Unless Byrne and Cook wanted to capture the mood of Tito Puente and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s trip to Boca Raton, they may consider striking this album from their otherwise illustrious list of accomplishments. Overall, Here Lies Love fails on all counts, unable to use its clichéd music or poor lyricism to advance its weakly developed concept.