While collaborative albums can really be a mixed bag at the best of times, there was something extremely tantalizing about the team behind Love This Giant. In one corner, there is Annie Clark, known as St. Vincent, who was behind last year’s terrific Strange Mercy and then followed that release up with a double A-side this year that suggested a thrillingly raw new direction. She is on a roll, to be frank. In the other corner is David Byrne. He is David Byrne, and so he needs neither introduction nor defense from me. Their teaming up is filled with musical possibilities the likes of which boggle the mind.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the first sound on the album would defy expectation, and the blast of sharp horns is what greets the listener at the beginning of strong opening track “Who.” Accompanied by slightly offbeat drums, Byrne’s distinctively tight and tension-filled vocals sing “Who’ll be my valentine? / Who’ll lift this heavy load?” Clark’s breathy chorus brings this odd dichotomy to life within a minute of the album’s opening, raising expectations a little bit further. That the song is followed by the deeply funky “Weekend In The Dust,” in which Clark reveals yet another side to her musical personality, simply means the album is off to an incredibly strong one-two punch.
There is clearly a pleasing democracy at play between the two musicians behind Love This Giant, no doubt the result of a mutual respect and lack of ego. At times it’s hard to figure out if one of them is sitting out a track entirely, but the songs on which they share vocal space prove that, overall, the pairing was a smart one. There is a loose Beauty and the Beast theme at times, and two songs in the middle of the album act this out most openly. “I Am An Ape” sounds like something from a deliciously twisted musical, with an undercurrent of lust that brings out the best in Byrne, never more so than when he describes himself as “a masterpiece, a hairy beast” in the album’s most oddly perfect lyric. “The Forest Awakes” is almost in dialogue with the preceding song, with a poetry and femininity that acts in contrast to Byrne’s id.
While the horns bring a personality of their own to proceedings, they do come with their own problems. Both “Dinner For Two” and “Lightning” begin with a more somber tone that is a welcome change of pace, and on both songs, the addition of horns sounds more intrusive than propulsive. They undoubtedly give the album a distinct and consistent flavor, but when the songwriting becomes a bit more pedestrian, the flaws inevitably become more apparent. The album toes an admirably quirky line, but if that line gets crossed, as on “I Should Watch TV,” lyrics like “The more I lost myself, the more it set me free” sound a little preposterous.
The fine line is never more evident than on the final two tracks. Again, both sound like they come from some musical stage version of Love This Giant that just might be crazy enough to warrant production one day. “The One Who Broke Your Heart” feels like the album’s big centerpiece, with guest spots from the Dap Kings and Antibalas, but in reality, it’s unbearably cheesy. Only a strong finale could wash the taste of that one away, and from nowhere Byrne and Clark provide it with the slow-paced duet “Outside of Space and Time,” which is toned-down, sincere, and utterly memorable.
So we have another collaboration album that is something of a mixed bag, but there is more than enough here to call it a qualified success. For Byrne, it’s proof that, thirty years after the peak of his career, he can still remain genuinely relevant and produce compelling music. For St. Vincent, it’s another string to her bow and suggests that she’s on an incredibly productive creative streak that shows no sign of ceasing just yet. It’s an intriguing, sometimes enthralling mixture of the old and the new, the beauty and the beast, the ludicrous and the ludicrously entertaining. And it’s worth a dip.
Tickets to David Byrne and St. Vincent’s show at the Greek Theater on Saturday, October 13th, are still available.
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