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Year Of Release: 1982
Overall rating = 12
Performance art rarely gets better than this. In fact, it's a LISTENABLE record. Imagine that.Best song: O SUPERMAN
Track listing: 1) From The Air; 2) Big Science; 3) Sweaters; 4) Walking & Falling; 5) Born Never Asked; 6) O Superman (for Massenet); 7) Example #22; 8) Let X=X; 9) It Tango.
"It was a large room. Full of people. All kinds. And they had all arrived at the same buidling at more or less the same time. And they were all free. And they were all asking themselves the same question: What is behind that curtain?"Frankly speaking, I don't know if Laurie Anderson's mega-multimedia United States I-IV presentation involved closed curtains or not. It certainly involved eight hours of musical/theatrical/poetic/whatever-else activity, over the course of which, as some claim, Laurie was laying out a many-sided impressionistic description of modern America and its problems. Actually, Laurie's artistic career didn't start with United States; she already had an almost decade-long background in modern performance art. However, as far as I understand, this was her first major performance act that involved a large musical section, and she even went as far as to release an actual single based on the proceedings. The single was 'O Superman'; it baffled everybody by actually reaching #2 on the British pop charts (see, in 1982 people were still willing to buy good records! Imagine that!), and secured Laurie a serious recording contract, with her first release being Big Science, a short extract from United States that certainly doesn't provide that much insight into the entire piece, but is still a tremendous debut for the woman. To tell the truth, I was expecting to hear something ugly, dissonant, and chaotic, but surprise surprise - Big Science, what with all of its convention-breaking elements and all, turns out to be quite accessible. Musically, there's not much to talk about: most of the songs are based on two or three note melodies at most, that is, if they actually have an instrumental melody at all. A single simple synthesizer, maybe at times enhanced with Laurie's violin, and occasionally a primitive drum machine or something like that. However, this is not 'ugly' music; the closest Laurie ever comes to "ear-destructive" is maybe the out-of-tune violin playing on the short 'Sweaters', and I guess some people would have a hard time enduring the endless 'hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo' pounding of 'O Superman', but in any case, the intention is never really to shock the listener through producing unearthly abysmal sounds. The intention is to use the minimalistic musical background as, well, background to Laurie's lyrics. She never really sings; everything on here features half-spoken, half-mumbled vocals, occasionally (as on 'Superman') encoded through electronic devices. So essentially, the songs are mood pieces, but mood pieces where the lyrics, though never openly meaningful, have actually to be listened to and counted in. I have located a huge page dedicated to the interpretation of Big Science lyrics, actually, which I consciously will not link to because it's practically useless; you really don't need to have multiple conflicting interpretations interfering with your own potential one. (But it's actually a lot of fun trying to come up with an interpretation of your own. In your spare time.) So let's just concentrate on the vague emotional response from these songs, without turning this page into a lecture on semiotics. 'From The Air' starts the record on a pretty disturbing note, after all, the first spoken lyrics are 'Good evening. This is your Captain. We are about to attempt a crash landing.' The atmosphere on that 'tune' actually gets denser and deeper in a very "normal" manner, with a symphonic synth background added to the most climactic points. Yet it never turns into a hysteric breakdown or something like that, a thing you could easily expect from your average 'apocalyptic' number. It just drones on and on, peacefully and quietly, until it abruptly ends and transforms into the title track. I guess I should state here that the primary emotional state of the performance is sadness, not acute despair or anger or anything like that. It's little wonder that a couple of the lines in 'O Superman' paraphrase the Tao Te King: this is what the ideal Taoist music should sound like (granted, classic Taoism despises music as an institute altogether, but had Lao Zu had a chance to hear Big Science, he might have written a little special addendum on the subject). And by the way, 'Big Science' - the track - is actually very close musically to a relaxed, but stern and majestic piece of Chinese music. Even if the lyrics have probably more to do with the concept of a modern American city. But hey, I promised no interpretations. Among the highlights, of course, is the eight-minute 'O Superman', subtitled 'For Massenet' because it is "musically paraphrasing" Jules Massenet's composition 'O Souverain', only with an inverted message, that of the... wait, no interpretations. Like I said, the never-swerving pulsating 'hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo' rhythm that carries the tune can get on your nerves after a while, but if you are in the right mood, the track might eventually hypnotize you with its soothing electronic pulsation. How the heck it could have become a number two hit single is beyond me, but that's not really relevant to the case. And then there are shorter and 'nicer' tracks like the majestic-sounding 'Let X = X' and the gloomier him-and-her dialogue 'It Tango'. I guess eventually the most seductive aspect of this whole thing is Laurie's way of pushing her ideas forward - very subtle and quiet. No screaming, no yelling, and actually no vocal modulation whatsoever, which actively reduces the pretentiousness value: I mean, the album just drones on and on - it's up to you to decide if the performance is actually meaningful and profound or whether it's just a waste of your and everybody else's time. It's one of those records that you'll probably either venerate or that will bore the piss out of you. Pretty hard to evaluate with a detached attitude. Which is what I actually tried to do here, and probably failed, but then again I never took postmodernist classes, you know.
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