Review originally published at the Wears the Trousers site.
Anyone familiar with Laurie Anderson’s work will know that it is a strange brew, a blend of the cerebral, the darkly comic and the oddly beautiful. Homeland, her first new studio LP in almost a decade, delivers on all these fronts and more. Her most famous work, 1982’s Big Science, was a slim-line distillation of Anderson’s gargantuan performance art piece ‘United States Live’, and similarly Homeland acts as the audio document of a larger piece of the same name that she has been staging worldwide since 2007. More than many of her records, Homeland brings together the personal and political elements to Anderson’s work with particular seamlessness. Her trademarks – quirky non-sequiturs, deadpan spoken word, a fragile upper register, her alternately melancholy and dissonant violin accompaniment – are all here. But Homeland, co-produced by Anderson with husband Lou Reed and longtime collaborator Roma Baran, also possesses a uniquely modern edge.
A couple of songs here have grabbed all the headlines. “Only An Expert,” which begins with blasts of Reed’s electric guitar, develops into a weird spoken-word, techno-funk experiment complete with electronic squelches and loops. Anderson’s analysis of misplaced American faith is as off-kilter and amusing as her best work, but it’s certainly a track that, by virtue of its sheer peculiarity, will prove divisive. Similarly, the eleven-minute epic “Another Day In America” finds Anderson’s voice slowed down to appear as her male alter-ego Fenway Bergamot, her satirical authoritarian voice. Featuring some subtle guest vocals from Antony Hegarty near its climax, the song captures a real sense of impending desolation and very palpable uncertainty as Anderson (Bergamot) asks of the new America, “How do we start? How do we begin again?”
But don’t be fooled into thinking that the rest of the material is simply there for decoration. The heart of this record is composed of intense and haunting ambient music, with frequent use of Middle Eastern instrumentation, spare electronic flourishes and the alternation between Anderson’s distinctive high singing voice and her deadpan spoken delivery contributing to its overwhelming sense of conceptual cohesion. Songs like “My Right Eye,” with its gradually building electronic backing, and the largely voice/violin dialogue of “Thinking Of You” (the closest the album gets to ‘pretty’), recall Big Science, while opening number “Transitory Life” utilises rubbery basslines and the gripping, evocative sound of Tuvan throat singers, who are pitched somewhere between Tanya Tagaq’s work on Björk’s Medùlla and Kate Bush’s use of the Trio Bulgarka.
Much of Homeland is stark and sparse and often, as with “Strange Perfumes,” almost creepy and oppressive. But there is no denying the simple power and imagination of much of this material. “Dark Time In The Revolution” incorporates bagpipes and live drums, while “Beginning Of Memory” features the return of the Tuvan singers alongside screeching saxophone courtesy of John Zorn, before the album ends with the elegiac violin instrumental “Flow.” Thus, even if the listener does not necessarily pay close attention to the social and political commentary of Anderson’s lyrics, Homeland works equally well as a mood piece. It’s as evocative as a film score, and Anderson’s images (“It takes a long time for a mouse to realise he’s in a trap”; “Where does love go when love is gone? To what war-torn city?”) are involving and engrossing even if you don’t make the wider social and political connections.
That’s when you begin to understand the magnitude of Anderson’s achievement. Homeland does not flaunt its politics, nor does it exaggerate its personal, emotional qualities. Instead, it’s a much defter and more subtle work capable of simultaneously providing accessible entertainment and challenging the listener’s heart and head. Of course it will have its detractors who will declaim it as pretentious and, god forbid, “arty,” but the fact that Anderson is still putting out music that is intelligent, thought-provoking, sometimes intensely sad, often hilariously funny and bizarre, is a cause for celebration. Some might say that Anderson’s work loses some impact outside the performance context, but Homeland goes a long way to disproving that theory. This is definitely one to spend some quality time with.