Record Review: Laurie Anderson – Mister Heartbreak [part 2]

[…continued from previous post]

Anderson maintained her usual sprechgesang vocals that were closer to narration; leaving the melodic singing to the trio of Dolette McDonald, Michelle Cobbs, and Brenda Nelson. When Anderson says “and the little girls sing” before the backing “Oooooooooeeeee’s” I cannot shake Lou Reed’s “And the colored girls sing” out of my mind. For what it’s worth. I love how the narrative and the music bed seem to suggest a conflict between nature/instinct and civilization. Sharkey, the song’s protagonist, seems to be trying to commune with the elemental forces around him but is not doing so well at the task.

“And Sharkey Says: all of nature talks to me. If I could just figure out what it was trying to tell me. Listen! Trees are swinging in the breeze. They’re talking to me. Insects are rubbing their legs together. They’re all talking. They’re talking to me. And short animals – They’re bucking up on their hind legs. Talking. Talking to me. Hey! Lookout! Bugs are crawling up my legs! You know? I’d rather see this on TV. Tones it down.” – Sharkey’s Day

But Sharkey is so confused he doesn’t know whether he’s feeling love or fear. And he’s inundated by encroaching middle class technocratic blandishments; mechanical trees that chop themselves down when they reach their full height. “Paging Mr. Sharley. White courtesy telephone please.”

Anton Fier’s drumming is zesty and vibrant here, and I love how the backing singers hold the first and last “Oooooooooeeeee’s” of the song for a quarter of a minute. They are the guides in and out of Sharkey’s world. When Jane Siberry first surfaced with her second album, the song “Mimi On The Beach” got pegged as being influenced by Anderson. The synth pulse was more than a little reminiscent of the “ha” loop used on “O, Superman.” And there was Siberry’s way of delivery that perhaps spoke of Anderson’s delivery. What is fascinating about “Sharkey’s Day” is that there is a part of the fifth verse that goes:

“Sharkey says: All of life comes from a strange lagoon. It rises up, it bucks up to its full height from a boggy swamp on a foggy night. It creeps into your house. It’s life! It’s life!” – Sharkey’s Day

For exactly this part of the song, I cannot shake the feeling that I am listening to Jane Siberry and not Laurie Anderson. Both this album and Siberry’s “No Borders Here” were released in 1984, so I can’t state that one artist didn’t influence the other or not. But in 1981, Siberry was a just a Canadian folksinger no one outside of Toronto had ever heard of, and Laurie Anderson was having a #2 single in the UK, so let’s assume that the startling transformation between 1981’s “Jane Siberry” and 1984’s “No Borders Here” was down to Siberry encountering Anderson in the time between and re-inventing herself as a multi-faceted art rocker. Still, the resemblance of Anderson’t delivery of that stanza simply reeked of Siberry’s mature delivery. It’s eerie.

“Langue D’Amour” was a strange, schizophrenic cut. The music was completely Anderson on her own, using samples described in the liner notes as “electronic conches.” Hmmm. The rhythm bed for this one was fascinating. What sounded like a completely random rhumba rhythm was running through the entire six plus minute song with seemingly no repetition occurring. At least it sounded that way. The first movement was the minimal music bed consisting of the seemingly irregular rhythm with some scant synth patches blowing across the landcape and the “electronic conches.” Anderson related an eden-like fable for the first half of the song while the second movement dispensed with her narration for vocoded vocals… in French.  Strangely enough, the only other musician on this cut was Peter Gabriel, singing backing vocals, but he would more significantly figure elsewhere.

Laurie Anderson had wanted to adapt the book “Gravity’s Rainbow” into a musical theatre piece [good luck with that, Ms. Anderson] only to have Thomas Pynchon acquiesce to her request only if she scored it entirely for banjo. Bowed, but not broken, she wisely wrote a single song called “Gravity’s Angel” instead. The insistent bell rhythms that began the track were played by Anderson and they form a compelling cadence of the sort we don’t usually hear in pop music. Anderson actually sang this song, for the first time on this album, in a high airy register with backing vocalist Peter Gabriel adding a much deeper counterpoint. Percussionist David Van Tiegham played acoustic and Simmons drums as well as plywood bowls with some startling, lurching rhythms that kept my interest taut throughout.  It made for an exciting six minutes and in a better world, this could have been a single.

“Kokoku” traffics in Nipponese mystique with a chorus sung by Connie Harvey and Janet Wright in Japanese while Atsuko Yuma [and Phoebe Snow!] handled the non-Japanese backing vocals. The instrumentation was dissolute and vague with sampled breath rhythms punctuating the song with a paradoxic urgency as it floated along like a cloud.

I remember seeing an episode of the PBS series, “Alive From Off Center” in January of 1984 with a special collaboration between Anderson and Peter Gabriel. They produced a video with video artist Nam June Paik for the song “Excellent Birds” and the song also figured both here and in a different version on Gabriel’s “So” album of the next year. I much prefer the version here since it’s not on a disappointing album that’s all over the quality map as it were. It was a concise three minute art-pop song with the singers on Synclavier and Bill Laswell on bass with… Nile Rodgers on guitar! I imagine that Gabriel and Rodgers were in the middle of recording their great single “Walk Through The Fire” [that Rodgers produced for the “Against All Odds” OST] around the time of this recording, so Rodgers came along for the ride. He would go on to produce the wonderful track “Language Is A Virus” on the next Laurie Anderson album, so a round of drinks for everybody, please! Again, why was this track not green-lit for single release at least in the UK, where Gabriel had some commercial heft even before “Sledgehammer” hit?

Another random-sounding, almost rhumba-rhythm figured again in the hazy “Blue Lagoon” with phoneme samples used extensively while the rest of the music bed resembled nothing so much as “The Carrier” from “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.” Very strongly, though Anderson’s lyrics excerpted from both “The Tempest” and “Moby Dick.” Finally, the album wrapped up with a cameo from Anderson’s compadre William S. Burroughs, with whom she recorded her first albums in the pre-“O-Superman” era. “Sharkey’s Night” reprised the brilliant opener to very different effect with the preternaturally middle-aged Burroughs sounding like a grizzled nightwatchman in a New York flophouse recounting the day’s surreal events. This would not be the first time that hipsters enlisted Burroughs for a transgressive frisson on their album, but it’s one of the best attempts.

This album has a circular vibe that flows well from track-to-track in a way that make me want to play it on repeat. Laurie Anderson can be verbose, visual, or musical, and on this album, she found the perfect middle-ground between her traditional performance art and music, with elements of her “United States” opus showing up on a few tracks, but the new material written especially for the album insured that this did in no way resemble a serving of “United States” also-rans and it very successfully avoided the dreaded sophomore jinx syndrome. So much so that this for decades has been my go-to Laurie Anderson album, and I don’t foresee that changing. Especially since I have them all. But the balance between art, rock music, and art rock itself being cooked to perfection here, in spite of the gumbo of producers responsible for the seven tracks, seriously endears itself to me. Later albums would have Anderson really singing [she took lessons before doing this] and they are fine albums, but the all-important quirk factor got buffed smooth on the later albums. On this one she was fulfilling the promise of “O, Superman” in spades.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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