Of course, at first, it’s “no, this cannot be.” But, as with so many initial surreal impressions, clarity eventually ensues. Shaping a collage of dance music around an ex-President’s extravagant material girl/wife is bold enough, but David Byrne and Fatboy Slim have also managed to shape the eclectic complexities of her persona by featuring numerous vocalists within a singular unified conceptual theme. And, quickly, almost despite her, the clever shape of this work blossoms within. Yet, does the piece sing?
Imelda Marcos is the 80-year old widow of former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. In most circles, she is best known for her large collection of shoes, and ridiculously outlandish lifestyle during her husband’s often criminal reign. Indeed, the couple stole billions of dollars from the country’s coffers, before being exiled to Hawaii, after being removed from office in 1986. He died in 1989, but his widow lives on to this day in various forms and images within the hearts and minds of many of her ex-countrymen, and others, throughout the globe, fascinated in her Iron Butterfly story.
So, yeah—how does one fashion art out of that mess? Well, that is where the musical and lyrical vision of two artists joined with a single purpose can somehow find a way. On the double album, Here Lies Love, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim attempt to shape a vision using a sharp collage of vocalists to conflicting results—many due to the very nature of one story with numerous narrators, and what happens when some songs click, and others do not.
It helps that Byrne and Slim are so well-versed in catchy pop minimalism, while knowing how to get one either sitting, pondering the strands of pop operatic bliss, or up dancing around a room, whether the place is some eye-popping palace, or a subterranean inner city club, bristling with life and energy. Continuity could have been a key flaw with the onslaught of lead voices, but the production is so consistent that the allure of that critical spike is quickly banished. What remains is the validity of the songs.
The first five tracks are memorable, absorbing, explanatory, and, at its heart, pop songs with, no surprise, an almost island-amidst-the-vast-ocean tropical vibe, circling around the listener. Female voices enter and exit the stage with grace, poignancy, and, yes, brevity. Florence Welch sets the stage on the title track with a throwback melody tune wedded with a modern beat. Candie Payne and St. Vincent deepen the background information with a touching downtempo tale on “Every Drop of Rain.” Martha Wainwright appears to stand center stage on Broadway on a rather subtle yet sublime “The Rose of Tacloban,” before momentarily giving way to a male voice in the story on “A Perfect Hand,” featuring Steve Earle on a rather rote and unimaginative piece.
Elsewhere, Cyndi Lauper finds her groove on “Eleven Days,” which is remarkable for its almost garage lounge hook as if T. Rex was reborn with a hipster funk chick fronting the band. “Don’t You Agree?” offers a soulful yet restrained reading by Irish musician and producer, Róisín Murphy. “Ladies in Blue” manages to sift through the daily musings of Marcos, with a ’70s dance beat, as sung by Theresa Andersson. And Natalie Merchant lends her elegant voice to “Order 1081,” featuring a haunting melody, which is beguiling and enticing, and a clear highlight on a double album searching for a true leader.
Ironically, when David Byrne finally takes center stage on lead vocal on “American Troglodyte,” and the lovely duet with Shara Worden on “Seven Years,” one hears the real promise of what could have been between the artistic genius and Fatboy Slim, the producer extraordinaire and electronic dance pioneer. One can feel the connection between the two artists in an ethereal magical way. One ruminates on what might have happened had Byrne penned tracks where he pondered Marcos from a distance—detailing how her life story is still relevant in post-economic meltdown political and cultural circles today. Instead, he chose the multi-voice format, and that is fine, of course.
Several modest gems are collected on the 22-track Here Lies Love. But there is no overall engaging hook to the whole story—either lyrically, or musically—to justify the fact that a work was based on the widow of an exiled president in the 1980s, and has been written, performed, and released in 2010. Just goes to show that, although conceptual continuity is always an artistic choice that is worth a series of thoughts and creative brainstorming, it, in the end, is just that—a choice. And sometimes, those choices don’t work. However, one daydreams about the seeds planted in some rather fertile soil, and another collective work with only the united voice and production of Byrne and Slim.