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fromheadtoheart flag US - New York - Full Moon 214 - 02/15/14

From head to heart
Laurie Anderson's Mister Heartbreak

Following our retroscope series of latter years, here we go again! Here's Speakers' corner's cousin; From head to heart. Luna Kafé's focused eye on great events, fantastic happenings, absolute milestones, or other curious incidents from the historic shelves'n'vaults of pop'n'rock. Blowing our ears and our head, punching our chest and shaking our heart. Making us go sentimental, but not slaphappy. This moonth the Lunar time-machine shuttle lands in 1984, revisting the second album by this avant-garde artist/performance artist/composer when she turned awkward "pop star" in the 80s. She was a pioneer in experimentala and electronic music introducing her tape-bow violin, her Talking stick, and her "audio drag" voice filters, and she's collaborated with names such as poet and performance artist John Giorno (known from Andy Warhol's Sleep, 1963), comedian Andy Kaufman, actor and writer Spalding Gray, author/poet/artist William S. Burroughs, as well as a long line of musicians from within many genres. To name a few: Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Peter Gabriel, David Sylvian, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Adrian Belew, Jean Michel Jarre, Arto Lindsay, Nile Rodgers, Van Dyke Parks, Ian Ritchie, Mitchell Froom, Bill Laswell, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, Hal Willner, John Zorn, Antony Hegarty, Anton Fier, Meat Loaf, Peter Gordon, Dave Stewart, Bobby McFerrin. And Lou Reed - her late husband. O Superwoman...


Laurie Anderson
Mister Heartbreak
Warner Bros.

Laurie Anderson was an experienced experimental multi-artist when she had quite an unexpected hit with the single "O Superman" in the UK in 1981. It eventually went to no. 2 in the British charts. This secured her a recording deal for several albums with Warner Bros. She was busy with a multi media performance simply called United States at the time, running for about 8 hours. Both the single and the other songs off her debut longplayer Big Science, released in April 1982, were taken from the project. The releases caused a lot of stir outside Laurie's normal modern art circuit. She was dealing with technology, and its effects on human relationships, both in her lyrics and recording wise and gained a lot of attention from those looking for the next big thing, those interested in art rock or simply in quality pop that didn't get boring third time you heard it.

By the winter of 1984 I had finished my studies, used most of my remaining savings for a trip round Europe before I returned to my family home without any work or hardly any money left. I had to invest in a few albums, though, and Mr. Heartbreak was one of them. Not only because of the expectations after Laurie's debut, but also because one of my musical favourites, still, Peter Gabriel participated on some songs and had even written one of them along with Ms. Anderson. He was also well into modern recording technology at the time. Mr. Heartbreak was released on 14 February 1984. The album included seven songs, three of them reworking of songs from United States (that had been recorded live over two evenings in 1983 and eventually was released, on five LPs, a little later in 1984).

Laurie plays the Synclavier on every track, the state of the art synthesizer and sampler at the time. Often the use of such - once so modern - devices soon sound very outdated. This is not the case here. The keyboards still sound pretty normal, sometimes also beautiful, even unique, with a sort of flute'ish sound. Only on parts of "Blue Lagoon", the weakest track here, and a few notes of "Excellent Birds" she can't resist to over-use the new toy and include some of the funny noises it can produce. And by now they sound 30 years old, very much so. The Vocoder, another modern device back then, a sort of voice induced synthesizer heavily utilized on "Oh Superman", is only present on "Langue d'Amore". It underlines Laurie's calm and relaxed talking voice and doesn't seem out of place apart from the heavily digital-distorted sung choruses(?) towards the end. All in all the album doesn't sound synthetic. Here are ordinary rock instruments as well and lots of acoustic and exotic percussions.

The albums starts with probably the most accessible and pop-oriented song, "Sharkey's Day", also released as a single in a shorter version. It's joyous and exhilarating, like waking up one sunny morning on a desert island in the southern seas with some exotic birds singing in the thick green rain forest close to the beach. Though the song partly deals with nature and Sharkey says: All of life comes from some strange lagoon, the lyrics have little to do with the pictures in my head when I listen to the song. They may have to do with the jungle bird and other exotic sounds, or other songs of the album. It's not perfect idyll, though, here are fear and disturbances, too, particularly due to Adrian Belew's (Zappa, Talking Heads, Bowie, King Crimson) nasty and fascinating guitar sounds. Other profiled musicians involved include ace bassist Bill Laswell (Material, Massacre, lots and lots more), guitarist Nile Rodgers (Chic and lots more) and drummer/percussionist Anton Fier (The Golden Palominos, Pere Ubu, John Zorn etc. etc.), all of the NYC mafia at the time. Peter Gabriel is most audible duetting with Laurie in the choruses of "Gravity's Angel" and throughout "Excellent Birds", the one they wrote together. He also plays the Synclavier on the latter. Great percussive art-pop both of them. Fascinating bell beats throughout "Gravity's Angel" ... Peter recorded "Excellent Birds" anew and retitled it "This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)" for his 1986 album So, the one that turned him into a superstar; incidentally the album he is touring with right now. (Well, the song was only available on the cassette and CD version of So, not the real thing back then, the LP.) The album finishes off with another profiled artist, none less than beat poet William Burroughs reading "Sharkey's Night", backed with a different and simpler mix compared to the one of the opening Sharkey track. Great to hear his creaky old voice again. Make me want to dig out some of his albums and books.

Laurie's lyrics are voluminous, not the easiest to understand and she draws on many literate sources. And she reads/speaks about as often as she sings. "Gravity's Angel" borrows on Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. According to Wikipedia, Laurie asked Pynchon, one of her favourite writers, for permission to turn his most famous novel into an opera. He agreed, but on the condition that she only used a banjo as backing. Not quite what she had in mind, and the opera dwindled into this song. "Blue Lagoon" (the real desert island song/allusion of the album) includes excerpts from Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick and Shakespeare's The Tempest, no less! Find out for yourselves:

I got your letter. Thanks a lot.
I've been getting lots of sun. And lots of rest. It's really hot.
Days, I dive by the wreck. Nights, I swim in the blue lagoon.
Always used to wonder who I'd bring to a desert island.

Days, I remember cities. Nights, I dream about a perfect place.
Days, I dive by the wreck. Nights, I swim in the blue lagoon.

Full fathom five thy father lies. Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes. Nothing of him that doth fade.
But that suffers a sea change. Into something rich and strange.
And I alone am left to tell the tale.
Call me Ishmael.

I got your letter. Thanks a lot.
I've been getting lots of sun. And lots of rest. It's really hot.
Always used to wonder who I'd bring to a desert island.
Days, I remember rooms. Nights, I swim in the blue lagoon.

I saw a plane today. Flying low over the island.
But my mind was somewhere else.
And if you ever get this letter. Thinking of you.
Love and kisses. Blue Pacific. Signing off.

Mr. Heartbreak is probably Laurie Anderson's most accessible album, at least among the ones I've heard. Some of the songs of the album was also included in her next release, the film Home Of The Brave (1986) with live footage from the Mr. Heartbreak tour. I was lucky to witness a Laurie show a little later with many of the same songs. I guess she has stayed somewhere in between art-pop and modern art in the intervening years, but closer to the latter than in the mid 1980s. In recent years she is probably most renowned as the girlfriend, later wife, lately widow of Lou Reed, seemingly an odd couple, but not as improbable when you think closer about it. Both the lady's first two albums are great and might work as an introduction into her musical world. For me, listening to both albums for the first time in many years, Mr. Heartbreak was the most satisfying. The combination of synthetic, electric and acoustic instruments in combination with her calm voice still seems quite unique!

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