Laurie Anderson - Homeland
Avant-pop maven Laurie Anderson has always been a keen observer. On her masterpiece debut, 1982's Big Science, she probed the edges of contemporary life and held out her discoveries for us to witness: the way a former crush holds a pencil, driving directions based on buildings that don't yet exist, a pilot who gives crash landing instructions as if leading a game of Simon Says. These observations are so precise that they must be true, and yet they're so eerily dreamlike that they must not. In this way, Anderson's lyrics feel like real life, with its blurring flood of details. Arguably, the world has grown even more confusing over the last 28 years. The definition is higher, but there's so much more data to parse. How are we to know which bits to process and which to ignore? Laurie Anderson doesn't have all the answers, but she still knows how to look for them. More important, she possesses the perfect medium for reporting her observations: via the dozen tracks that comprise Homeland, her first new studio album in nine years.
The album pivots around its lead single, "Only an Expert." With a steady trance beat, rubbery bass line, and guitar squalls courtesy of hubby Lou Reed, the cut is Anderson's grooviest and most infectious song in decades. Lyrically, it's perhaps her sharpest and most caustic work ever. In an age when 24-hour news cycles foist a non-stop stream of "experts" upon us, Anderson topples the ludicrous tautology propping up these often self-appointed authorities, most of whom manage to wriggle away from the consequences of their ruinous predictions and actions, time and time again. Or, as Laurie puts it: "Only an expert can design a bailout / And only an expert can expect a bailout."
The rest of the record is nowhere near as tough, but nor is it as didactic. Another eleven iterations of "Only an Expert" would feel like a bludgeoning. Instead, throughout Homeland, Laurie Anderson seduces us into entering her world of enveloping Synclavier tones and Vocoded missives. On "Another Day in America," her male alter ego, Fenway Bergmot (whose mustachioed visage adorns the album's cover) wistfully intones a litany of memories from before an apparent apocalypse. Again, Anderson provides the almost sickeningly hyper-real details that make her tale come alive, like "the famous 19th century rubber wars" and "Uncle Al, who screamed all night in the attic." Set to a soundscape of spare and icy ambience, this eleven-plus-minute baritonal narration sounds like a weary broadcast from a concrete bunker, and the speaker knows that no one is alive to hear the message. Or maybe this is just a parable of modern isolation, where we blog and post our hearts out into the endlessly expanding etherverse, without receiving even an echo in return.
Homeland is also about the heaviness of our times. On "Bodies in Motion," Anderson takes the Atlas myth and adds an additional burden of physics: "Ooh, the weight of the world / Eternal spin puts a dent in my shoulder." In "Dark Time in the Revolution," Laurie borrows Thomas Paine's quote, "Does it make common sense for an island to rule a continent?" and ups the ante with her own challenge to America's manifest destiny, "Does it make common sense for a country to rule the world?" We live on a big globe, and it seems like we carry more of it with us each day.
Rarely on Homeland does Laurie Anderson slip into the New Agey niceness that sometimes left 2001's Life on a String a bit under-nourishing, but it does happen. Here, "The Lake" provides little more than bucolic filler. Fortunately, it's followed up by the bizarre avian fable in "The Beginning of Memory" and the lovely closing instrumental track, "Flow," an adagio for a trio of overdubbed violins.
With few drums, almost no bass guitar, mournful strings from Anderson and violist Eyvind Kang, and lots of open space surrounding nebulae of synth sounds, Homeland radiates loneliness. This effect is only enhanced by lyrics like, "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." Still, it's a loneliness that Anderson wishes to share with her listeners. And, by listening, maybe we'll all feel a little less alone.
Recommended Tracks: "Another Day in America," "Only an Expert," "Bodies in Motion"