First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2007, Volume 14, #9
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Sun September 23, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
"I can see the future, and itís a place about 70 miles east of here," Laurie Anderson sang in a deadpan tone over the metallic handclap that anchored the rhythm of Let X=X, one of the pithy social essays masquerading as a pop song on her 1982 major label debut Big Science. Anyone who is hearing the recently reissued album for the first time in 2007 can be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was all about. In the 25 years since its initial release, so many of Andersonís off-kilter vocal techniques and electronic flourishes have found their way into the language of popular culture that it may be hard to impress upon people just how groundbreaking a work Big Science was at the time of its birth.
Emerging from the same Lower Manhattan scene that nurtured the pursuits of Phillip Glass and Talking Heads, Anderson began her career as a conceptual artist in New York City, and her first audience was primarily an academic one. She was influenced by the linguistic dynamics of William S. Burroughs (whose cadence and detached delivery she emulates perfectly) and Brion Gysin as much as she was by the pop sensibilities of Motown acts and The Beatles. What is remarkable about Anderson is that ó much like David Bowie, with whom she often is compared ó her artistic output briefly was able to cross into the mainstream without her ever having to dilute her message to fit within its narrow parameters.
Big Science was essentially a selection of songs from Andersonís lengthy performance piece United States, and when it first was released in 1982, it became a surprise hit. O Superman, the effortís initial single, actually went as far as number two on the English pop charts, and it received FM radio play throughout North America. For a brief period during the Reagan years, before music went dreadfully wrong, artists such as Anderson ó along with David Byrne and Brian Eno, whose brilliant collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts also has managed to remain contemporary, regardless of the passage of time ó was able to skirt along the mainstream and challenge audiences with material that was truly new and different. With her disembodied vocals riding over instrumental tracks of found sounds, tape loops, and minimalist instrumentation, Andersonís approach to a song anticipated and predated, by at least a decade, the aesthetic routes taken by singers like Bjork.
While all of this context may be interesting, it begs the question as to whether Big Science sounds any good in 2007. No matter how "important" a work it happens to be, if itís no fun to listen to it, then thereís no point in seeking it out. Thankfully, after not hearing the effort for more than 20 years, I was surprised to discover how delightfully funny and chilling Andersonís observations continue to be. While the "future shopping malls and drive-through banks" at which Anderson scoffs in the albumís title tune were built long ago, there remains something shudderingly contemporary about her admonitions and her ironic approach to discussing technology. The fears she anticipated may have materialized, but lines like "Donít forget your mittens/Big science hallelujah" still nail the incongruity of seeking solace from technology when there are more basic kindnesses and approaches that allow one to transcend any form of "progress."
In a world where electronic voices regularly stress that "your call is important to us," the cramped and paranoid environment that Anderson created on Big Science is still astutely frightening and real. Listening to the opening track, From the Air in a post-9/11 world is even more horrifying and funny than it was during the relative innocence of 1982. Exploring the range between politeness and distance, warmth and detachment, the voice that says "Iíve got a funny feeling Iíve seen this before/Why?/Because Iím a caveman" shows the listener, more clearly than any Noam Chomsky essay, how little the world has changed, despite 6,000 years of civilization. With lyrics that dance around both the dependence on and fear of technology as well as the disillusionment with leaders and their agendas that exist in the world today, Big Science was clearly years ahead of its time:
"Put your hands over your eyes
Jump out of the plane
There is no pilot
You are not alone
The need for warmth and reassurance, as the flames of the apocalypse are licking around our collective butts, has never been so well eviscerated and communicated in a pop-art disguise. Due to its use of sampled sounds and detached vocals, Big Science initially was a novelty for many listeners, but the intervening years have revealed the protest album that is embedded in Big Scienceís DNA. Anderson does not employ the rugged, individualist voice that Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan employed to call "the everyman" to arms; her instrument of choice was not the simple bohemian six-string weapon that both men opted to use. Yet, her mission and her resulting art have many similarities to their works.
Throughout Big Science, Anderson uses the sounds and devices of technology to comment on its prevalence in our everyday lives. Alternately humorous and terrifying, Big Science is a multilayered effort that has gained in significance and power as the years have passed. Andersonís ironic delivery belies the warmth and humanity that transcend both the form and content of her work in order to reveal a collection of songs that ó though often funny ó express a deep concern for the direction of progress, and it is even more essential to hear her message today than it was 25 years ago. Post-modern in its sensibilities and timeless in its outlook, Big Science is an album that has survived the original novelty and context surrounding its release to become a landmark recording that belongs in every serious music fanís collection. It is unquestionably, unarguably essential. Ĺ
Big Science is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box