By way of historical context, Laurie Anderson’s last studio album, Life on a String, was released a month before 9/11, largely written and recorded in the earliest months of Bush Lite’s first term. And even though Life on a String predated the political tumult and social distress that followed the nation’s worst domestic terrorist attack, Anderson still provided an eerily prescient soundtrack for the event and its aftermath. On “Statue of Liberty,” Anderson intoned, “Freedom is a scary thing/Not many people really want it,” and on “One Beautiful Evening,” she noted, “Funny how hatred can also be a beautiful thing/When it’s sharp as a knife.”
As a visual artist, sonic sculptor and erudite wordsmith, Anderson has, from the start of her artistic endeavors and throughout her amazingly diverse career, existed in some future moment and sent critically perfect dispatches back to us in the duality of our present and her past.
Anderson has not been sequestered in some hermetically sealed panic room over the past nine years, so the technological/cultural/political sea changes that have occurred since Life on a String are clearly on her mind on Homeland, her seventh and latest studio album.
Much of the album has been in development over the course of the past two years as Anderson has toured some version of this material and presented it without the distraction of her standard multimedia extravaganza, preferring to allow the drama of the words and music to provide the stimulation. It turned out to be a wise choice, as Homeland bristles with sounds and messages that are beautifully compelling and compellingly beautiful.
Take “Only an Expert,” for instance. Over a relentless Talking Heads-like electronic beat and husband Lou Reed’s circuitous yet crunchy guitar ministrations, Anderson weaves a brilliant monologue about the way Americans approach their difficulties, typically by turning on the television and finding someone who can identify and fix them in an hour (minus commercials). This morphs into subtext about the economic crisis and global warming, a device that Anderson has used with masterful skill in a good deal of her lyrical work.
A similar although weightier monologue takes place in “Another Day in America,” an 11-minute tome that drapes Anderson’s incisive observations about the state of the union — pushed through the masculine vocal filter that she has called the “Voice of Authority” — in an ambient sonic texture that is as simultaneously soothing and unnerving as Anderson’s words. Not that she needs the device to add gravity to her poetic musings, as her (mostly) unfiltered voice lends dark emotion to “Dark Time in the Revolution” and “The Beginning of Memory.”Given the fact that Anderson has been touring steadily since Life on a String and working in various capacities (she was part of the artistic panel that crafted the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympics), it’s clear that she hasn’t really been away. But Homeland seems like Anderson’s dark, dramatic and welcomed return to a diminishing musical society of essential cultural narrators.