Published on Noisetap.com, April 9, 2010.
There are a number of reasons why, by default, I should champion David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Imelda Marcos concept album Here Lies Love. The Philippines is my parents’ homeland. I’m partial to off-center nerd-pop with electronic/world music leanings. I’m a big fan of many of its featured vocalists, namely St. Vincent, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Natalie Merchant, and Martha Wainwright. Likewise, there are reasons I shouldn’t like it. The Philippines is my parents’ homeland where the Marcos legacy is generally reviled. I’m not partial to disco—the album’s predominant genre. I’m typically wary of "rock opera." Not that I’m categorically opposed to rock opera, it’s just that there are a hell of a lot of poor attempts at it—and when it’s bad, it’s excruciating.
The truth is that I really wanted to like this album, despite my built-in ambivalence towards it. I mean, with its offbeat subject matter, amazing vocalists, and pop music visionary David Byrne at the helm, my interest was more than piqued. Perhaps it was my wish for the album to not only be kitschy chic and lyrically clever, but to also possess a subtle poignancy that would finally humanize Marcos (who, I had been taught, fully deserved her exile)—that guaranteed my overall disappointment with Here Lies Love.
First off, let’s just state the obvious. This album is just too damn long. If it had actually become a staged musical, the double-album length would have made more sense. But, alas, the narrative is not compelling enough, nor are the songs strong enough to warrant sparing the paring knife. And it’s a story we’ve heard before—a beautiful, ambitious, but poor village girl, through the love of a man, ultimately finds herself in a position of wealth and power presiding over a nation in strife. The Evita comparisons, obviously, abound.
The melodies, as one would expect of Byrne, are solid and often pretty—but they never wander off of their pedestrian course. The same can be said for Fatboy Slim’s beats which remain almost entirely on a mid tempo 4/4. The title track, for all of its lovely harmonization, sounds like what you would expect if Disney made an animated musical set in a ‘70s roller rink, and though “Don’t You Agree” (featuring Irish soul-siren Roisin Murphy) boasts a solid disco groove, it seems less likely to be a dance floor hit than merely background music for 20-somethings shopping at Urban Outfitters.
The horns and world music rhythms (mostly Latin American and Spanish) for which Byrne is well known are peppered throughout (“The Rose of Tacloban,” “When She Passed By,” “Never So Big”) , and they, along with the biographical lyrics, lend some interest to what might otherwise be standard dance-pop album filler. Then again, it being an “exotic-themed” work, the inclusion of ethnic instruments and beats are obvious and expected.
The stand-out tracks are the seriously funky “Dancing Together” (an homage to Imelda’s Studio 54 days where she was spotted dancing with the likes of George Hamilton and Andy Warhol) featuring Sharon Jones and “American Troglodyte”—a track sung by Byrne himself with hooky phrasing and delightfully sardonic lyrics: “Americans are wearin’ that lingerie / Americans are throwin’ that shit away / Americans are watchin’ reality / Americans are going’ from A to z.”
Like Imelda’s public persona, the album (with accompanying DVD and book) is not lacking intelligence, but is weighed down by meticulous and distracting embroidery that ultimately holds together nothing substantial. On Here Lies Love, we find beautiful, impassioned voices and just the sort of shimmering production one would expect of seasons music makers producing a disco record. And also like the public Imelda, whose “humanitarian” efforts manifested mainly in giving her hungry and impoverished people a glimpse at her personal finery (she once said, “Never dress down for the poor. They won’t respect you for it. They want their First Lady to look like a million dollars”), Here Lies Love presents some pretty, but fleeting, vocal performances and melodies that offer a welcome distraction, but which ultimately leaves you bereft.
Published April 9, 2010 on Noisetap.com.