It’s easy to forget that David Byrne is a Scottish lad at heart. His parents hail from Dumbarton, a town with fewer than 20,000 people. They left for the new world when Byrne was 2, but for all his purported urbanity and influence on the modern hipster, the old-world sensibilities have continued to play a significant role in Byrne’s life and work. We’ve seen it in his fascination with painting and Middle Eastern music that go back to the ’70s. His recent fascination with hymnal music, which was hinted at on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, is on full display with the Big Love: Hymnal soundtrack. Big Love: Hymnal serves as a premodern counterpunch to the ultramodern pop tendencies of Byrne’s Eno collaborations.
I’ll admit I haven’t watched much of Big Love; this is due to my deathly allergy to fundamentalism and its Mormon application especially. I still have nightmares integrating Under the Banner of Heaven. Yet just by listening to Byrne’s soundtrack, I could just see myself in an antebellum sitting room next to an old lady at a spinning wheel. Of course, most of the 20- to 30-year-olds who worship Byrne know this music almost exclusively through the Oregon Trail, but that can hardly be blamed on Byrne.
In any event, the music, with its subtle, soft use of horns, piano and violin, is as much Christian spiritual as anything else. Other than the epoch it recalls, there isn’t much distinctly Mormon about it other than the song titles. The overwhelming theme here is new-world hymnals, the Great Awakening, and the simple life.
But of course, the simple life is not as simple as it seems. Witness “Deep Water,” which would sound perfectly in place on The Life Aquatic soundtrack more than in a show about Utah. There’s also the endearingly strange “A House on Sand,” which is probably the closest you’ll ever hear to combining 19th-century hymnal music with Suicide in CBGB circa 1975. Many of the song titles are dripped with meanings that are much snarkier than the songs they entitle (“Exquisite Whiteness,” “Great Desolation”). Many of the songs play with Mormon motifs with Byrne’s art-school eye and ears.
Despite the antebellum and Great Awakening themes, there isn’t much music here that speaks to the catharsis or violence of religious conversion. In terms of Byrne’s catalog, you’re more likely to find that kind of emotion in songs like “The Great Curve,” “I Zimbra,” or “Qu’ran.” Byrne’s wilder instincts as a young man have left him as he’s turned to that ol’ time religion in his graying years.
It’s only natural that Byrne would get safer and more relaxed in his later years, but it’s to his credit that things don’t remain completely stale. Of course, it’s impossible to tell whether Byrne’s sudden “fascination” with gospel music is sincere or the product of his need for reinvention (or both). Even if Big Love: Hymnal is more interesting and intelligent than a standard dinosaur rock release, it still plays to dinosaur rock conventions all the same.