When the world is as confusing as ours is these days, when we're inundated with information to such a degree that it becomes almost impossible to pick out individual messages from the overall cacophony of noise, the temptation to accept simplistic answers as the solution to our problems is almost irresistible. When you spend your day worrying about work, what the kids are up to at school, how far the money is going to stretch this month, it's such a relief when somebody can give you an easy to understand explanation as to what's wrong with the world. When white is white and black is black you don't have to think and you can let those who know best get on with making sure everything will turn out all right in the end.
The simple life: where global warming, the economy, terrorism, wars in foreign countries and disease aren't things you have to concern yourself with. Things can't be that bad after all if it's business as usual? The shelves are still filled with stuff for us to buy and the airwaves filled with people telling us what we should buy and why. There's nothing to worry about say the newscasts, a correction, a minor setback, an outbreak far away, and its all under control now.
Anyway, it was somebody else's fault and it would have never happened if "we" had been in charge, but now we are so its all going to be okay. So sit back and listen to somebody sing sincerely about nothing, watch an explosion of colour in high definition that means nothing, push your needle of choice into your veins from what's being offered up these days as the opiate that will help keep you from noticing the world is going to hell in a fucking hand basket. It's all designed to make you deaf, blind and voiceless.
What does any of this have to do with Laurie Anderson's latest CD release, Homeland, on Nonesuch Records? Nothing and everything. Nothing in that she's nothing like what I've described above, and everything because she is everything an artist should be in times like these. Anderson is not what you would call your standard popular musician, in fact it does her a disservice to even consider the work she does in the same breath as popular music.
Yes, she writes music and lyrics to accompany it, but what she creates has as much to do with popular music as the words inside a Hallmark Card have to do with poetry. Her husband, and co-producer of Homeland, Lou Reed, struck to the heart of the matter with his comment regarding the disc in the documentary, Homeland: The Story Of The Lark, part of the bonus DVD included with the CD, "The more intelligent you are, the more you'll get out of it."
In a society where the majority of what passes for entertainment is geared towards the lowest common denominator, intelligence is not usually a required prerequisite for appreciation. It's not that the material on Homeland requires one to have any sort of special knowledge or is in any way elitist, it's that Anderson doesn't manipulate her listeners with sentimentality.
This is a music of ideas, and any emotions generated in the listener will be because of reactions to what is heard. For example, some people are going to be angry - for a variety of reasons - when they listen to songs like "Only An Expert" where Anderson satirizes our reliance on so-called experts for guidance in everything from our love life to what actually constitutes a weapon of mass destruction.
For those of you familiar with Anderson's work you'll know she's something of a storyteller as well as everything else, with pieces being spoken word and the music accenting the narration or serving as background. On the cover of Homeland is a picture of Anderson made up and dressed as a rather odd looking man. In the past she's used voice modification software to assume a masculine character, someone she refers to as a kind of alter-ego.
Well, now for the first time, he's more than just a voice, he's become a character by the name of Fenway Bergamott who regales us with his version of a state of the union address, "Another Day In America." The situation, according to Fenway, is one of confusion. Sort of betwixt and between the good ol' days, which might not have been so good, today's reality, and the no way of knowing what the future holds. Supposedly it's a whole new beginning, but if that's the case why does so much look like something we've seen before?
One thing Anderson isn't afraid of doing is asking questions, but not the type of questions you're used to hearing. "Was the constitution written in invisible ink?", she asks in "Dark Time In The Revolution", as she compares modern day America to the ideals which shaped the revolution responsible for its birth and finds it wanting. "Welcome to, welcome to, welcome to the American night".
She points out that during the darkest hour of the original revolution, when things were horribly desperate, Thomas Paine wrote one of the first best sellers, Common Sense. In it he asked, "Does it make common sense for an island to rule a continent?' Well that inspired everybody to go that extra step and continue to fight for freedom. In this dark time, when the revolution has faltered, she asks,"Does it make common sense for a country to rule the world?"
However Anderson does more than just focus on the big picture. Songs like the disc's opening piece, "Transitory Life", describe something of the struggle to be in modern America. "It takes a long time for a mouse to realize he's in a trap/But once he does something inside him never stops trembling". You can take a line like that and apply it to a number of different situations - trapped in a marriage for no reason, trapped by the material possessions you've gone into debt for - it doesn't really matter what though, for we all have some sort of personal mousetrap we're caught in.
With just those few words Anderson has been able to get to the heart of what's behind so many people's disquiet. Yet there's also something about them encouraging the listener to look at the deeper implications behind their surface meaning. What does it mean for people to understand the life they've been leading is a trap? What does that say about our society? What does it say about the implied promises that have been made to us as participants in the American Dream?
In the documentary, Homeland: The Story Of The Lark, Anderson talks about the process of creating the recording. Instead of the usual practice of going into the studio and then touring to support sales, she performed the songs with various musician in front of live audiences for three years before entering a studio. It was through this process that she came up with the music and the arrangements for each of the songs.
The results are stunning as the music in each case serves as a perfect compliment to the words and ideas being expressed. However, and this is key, that doesn't mean the music offers you signposts as to how you're supposed to react emotionally to the lyrics - in some ways it does the exact opposite by encouraging you to think about what is being said and then form your emotional reaction based on what you think not on what you "feel".
In an era of mass produced entertainment, which appears to discourage independent thought, where the antics of those involved in its creation is more important than whatever is actually produced, the fact that Laurie Anderson's work is being made available at all, let alone for mass consumption, is a gift you don't want to take for granted. There is very little this intelligent, beautiful, accessible and enjoyable being offered these days and you would be doing yourself a great disservice if you don't at least give it a listen. If there's one CD so far this year that's a must buy - Homeland is it.
(Article first published as Music Review: Laurie Anderson - Homeland on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted July 2010)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.