Monday, August 24, 2009

August 24: Laurie Anderson, "Big Science"

Artist: Laurie Anderson
Album: Big Science
Year: 1982
Label: Warner Bros.

In the minds of most people, by the time the 1980's rolled around, the "beat" movement was dead and gone. Apparently, nobody told that to Laurie Anderson. Creating music that was simultaneously ahead of its time and a sound of the past, she was truly an artist that could not be placed into any category other than one all on her own. Combining heavily experimental music, horn and synth loops, and her unique spoken vocals, her music is almost sounds like the product of a collaboration between Brian Eno and perhaps William S. Burroughs. Her highly experimental sound and the manner in which she performs makes a bit more sense when one sees that her longtime companion (who she married in 2008) is another experimental musician who goes by the name Lou Reed. Though she is perhaps better known for her stage performances and live art experiences, she has also created many unique musical instruments, many of which have been adapted by other artists. Having released nine genre-defying albums over the past thirty years, Laurie Anderson is the epitome of an artist who refuses to compromise even the slightest detail of her music, and her albums are never anything short of stunning. Bringing her unexpected commercial success, Laurie Anderson's 1982 debut album, Big Science stands as one of the most original and absolutely brilliant albums ever recorded.

Big Science is, in fact, a collection of pieces from what would become Anderson's epic eight hour artistic production, United States I-IV, which would be released as a four LP/book set titled United States Live in 1984. Big Science was catapulted to success by the unlikely hit single, "O Superman" which found its way to the second spot on the U.K. singles charts in 1981, which led to Anderson's record deal with Warner Brothers. Being about as far from a traditional hit single as one could get, one can make the case that the overwhelming endorsement from the great John Peel played some role in the success of the song. At nearly eight and a half minutes, "O Superman (For Massenet)" is nearly three times the length of a standard radio song, and lyrically, it is both scattered and intense. The imagery created, from answering machines to allusions to the hostage crisis in Iran at the time, is both stunning and thought provoking, once again in ways that hit singles rarely sound. The song itself is based around Jules Massenet's 1885 opera, Le Cid, and the opening lines to the song, "Oh Superman, Oh Judge, Oh Mom and Dad" perfectly echo the opera's opening phrase. Using a constant, looped vocal that sounds like a short laugh, and containing sparse instrumentation (and a brief sax solo), the song exemplifies the true brilliance of Anderson's artistry. Anderson re-recorded the song in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, with lyrics altered to reflect the events. From just hearing this one song, one gains a great understanding of the sheer genius behind the lyrics and music that Anderson creates.

Much like her approach to the lyrical delivery, musically, Big Science throws all traditions to the side and it is like nothing else you'll hear anywhere. From sparse keyboard loops to almost tribal sounding rhythms to staccato beats made from sounds, Big Science is truly in a league of its own. Incorporating everything from accordions to trumpets and saxophones, the music on the album exemplifies what it means to take traditional instruments and use them like never before heard. Primarily using an Oberhem OB-X polyphonic synthesizer, this is where Anderson's music bears some similarity to the sound of Jean Michael Jarre, and possibly even a VERY small similarity to the keyboard choruses of Prince's early records. There is even a point during "Example #22" where the sound is almost that of a hip hop song, aside from the synth loop. However, it is in Anderson's minimal instrumentation, often using nothing more than bottles and hand claps to create the musical textures where one can experience her true artistic genius. With most of the music being created by only Anderson and producer and multi-instrumentalist Roma Baran, it is nothing short of amazing that such complex, yet sparsely played compositions are the results of just two primary musicians. Though others do lend various instruments here and there, the music found on Big Science must truly be experienced to be understood, as it is avant and original in ways that one simply cannot conceive.

There are few more accurate ways to describe the voice of Laurie Anderson than "strangely soothing." Never raising her voice at all, and usually sticking to a slow, yet powerful pace, there are countless times throughout Big Science when her voice is nothing short of hypnotic. From the bizarre, sarcastic opening track, "From The Air," where Anderson takes on the role of an odd pilot giving in-flight announcements to the vacant yodeling of the albums' title track, Anderson's style of delivery may follow similar lines in terms of tone and tempo, yet they are rarely all that similar to one another. Taking into account the fact that, until this album, Anderson was almost exclusively a visual artist, her sense of melody and rhythm become even more extraordinary. Perhaps more powerful than how she says things is what she is saying. One cannot deny the fact that Big Science is filled with brilliant social criticisms and observations, touching on the pitfalls of capitalism to the horrors of suburbia. Anderson also remarks on the ways in which science and "progress" can/are causing the downfall of society. However, as is highlighted on the aforementioned title track, Anderson also has a keen sense of humor, and many of her commentaries on society are cloaked within clever one liners. Whether she is using her voice to convey her fantastic lyrics or using it as part of the musical textures, Laurie Anderson truly approaches the role of the voice in music like no other artist in history.

Sadly, in the case of an overwhelming majority of avant and experimental artists, there is some point in their career where they trade away their originality in exchange for some bit of commercial success. Most people call such actions "selling out," and it is often the beginning of the end for the artist in question. By far one of the most experimental artists in music history, there has never even been the most remote sign of such compromise from Laurie Anderson, and that is a very good thing to say the least. Few artists have ever made more consistently unique music, and many of Anderson's compositions and albums are true works of art, as most of them have accompanying visual aspects, if not full on performances. Using a wide range of not traditional instruments, and sparsely scattering them throughout her compositions, the music that Anderson creates is equal to, if not greater than her unmistakable vocals. Her "cool," relaxed vocal tracks are as unorthodox and unique as one will find anywhere, and the way in which she delivers her lyrics is often nothing short of intoxicating. Powered by the unlikely hit "O Superman (For Massenet)," Laurie Anderson's 1982 debut album, Big Science, remains one of the most original and extraordinary musical efforts in the history of recorded music.

Standout tracks: "From The Air," "Big Science," and "O Superman (For Massenet)."

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