When two of the smartest people in the music industry collaborate, the results are bound to be interesting. This morning I received “Strange Overtones,” the new single from David Byrne and Brian Eno in my inbox. It’s from their forthcoming album “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.” Byrne and Eno are forgoing usual promotional routes in favour of a web experiment to see if the Internet and word of mouth will be enough to spread their album.
“Everything That Happens Will Happen Today” is their first collaboration since 1981’s “My Life In the Bush of Ghosts,” an album of sample-based music electronic that was groundbreaking and exciting and still sounds fresh and innovative in the 21st Century. Byrne and Eno have a lot to live up to. So how is “Strange Overtones?”
“Strange Overtones” does not disappoint. The song is excellent, wonderful, beautiful, invigorating. Eno’s music is lush and poppy, reminiscent of some of his Talking Heads work as well as his collaboration with John Cale, “Wrong Way Up,” but brought up to date. Funky, mid-tempo rhythms begin the song and anchor it throughout in a down-to-earth way, and occasionally there is a powerful, but simple guitar. Byrne’s singing voice is wistful, humane– a more self-assured version of the Byrne from “I Know Sometimes a Man Is Wrong.” He hasn’t sounded this good in years. And of course there are plenty of classic Eno-style layered vocals– dozens of Davids (and maybe even some Brians?) harmonizing with themselves. The earthy rhythms and almost transcendently detached vocals compliment each other perfectly.
“Strange Overtones” is an unrequited love story. The lover separated from his love by a wall, uses her sounds to complete himself. It seems sad, but there’s also some hope– a melting snowball provides a naive metaphor for the possibility of connection. And, even if our hero never achieves a direct connection with his beloved, ultimately maybe some sort of connection has been achieved– over distance, a romance of anonymity where the object of love never even realizes who her lover is. Or that she even has a lover. Maybe the love for her that he feels inside himself is enough.
Of course, maybe things aren’t that simple. Some of Byrne’s lyrics undercut the romantic angle of the song, among them the idea that “a heart is not enough” and the presence of some undefined “strange overtones in the music you are playing” that could imply the existence of the naive 21st Century romance-under-erasure, or perhaps signal a much more sinister side to our hero. Byrne’s lyrics, even when they seem naive and innocent, often repay deep reading.
All this of course makes “Strange Overtones” seem overly intellectual — which it isn’t. Sure, it’s a very intelligent song, but it’s also immediately accessible, inviting, and even kind of sweet. Byrne’s lyrics are magical and Eno’s music and production are excellent. And if the rest of the album is half as good as this song, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today” will be the album of the year. If the rest of the songs are as good or even better, it will be the album of the decade.