Avant-garde. Whip-smart. Poet. Expert. These are just a few words that could describe experimental multimedia performance artist Laurie Anderson. And she's much more than that. Over four decades, she has toyed with the boundaries between forms, puncturing the paper thin walls between song, spoken word poetry, art, political activism, and philosophy and allowing each practice to seep into the next. The result is thrilling, challenging, and all her own.
This past June, Anderson released Homeland, her first album since 2001's Life on a String, produced with the help of her partner of many years, Lou Reed. Originally conceptualized as a "concert poem" and considered to be the 21st century continuation of her 1983 multimedia project United States I-IV, this batch of new songs have been developing and mutating in Anderson's mind for the past several years and, in their final incarnation, have solidified into a complete body, one that tackles global warming, torture, economic meltdowns, and everything else that goes along with what Anderson sees as the decay of America.
Laurie Anderson doesn't shy away from touchy subjects. Quite the opposite, she digs her teeth into the meatiest contemporary issues, tears them apart, and rearranges them in new ways, changing the way they're seen, altering one's understanding of them. Listening to Anderson's work is an experience akin to walking around with near-sightedness all your life and then being granted a pair of corrective lenses. Her performance pieces become a revelation of things you once knew but forgot, things that you never realized but now know by heart.
Homeland begins with mournful igil strings and mesmerizing Tuvan throat singing (a particular type of overtone singing practiced in Siberia). Soon, Anderson adds words to the mix and what lovely words they are. "It takes a long time for a mouse to realize he's in a trap, but, once he does, something inside him never stops trembling," she sings. A whole song could stand on the shoulders of that single image, but, in the next line, Anderson offers yet another chillingly beautiful vision: "And grandma, in the pancake makeup she never wore in life, lies there in her shiny black coffin, looks just like a piano. She made herself a bed inside my ear and every night I hear." Each bafflingly powerful image wallops a great blow over the listener's head. In this first song alone, Anderson has revealed her specialty: the innate ability to conjure up emotion, not to mention serious chills, with just a few words that click into exactly the right places to create the desired chain reaction, like a successful, satisfying explosion in a chemist's lab.
"Only An Expert" is another effective piece, bursting with evocative insights and scary truths. Anderson reads the temperature of an ailing America, a place where so-called "experts" proliferate, peddling solutions to fictitious problems to make a buck and take advantage of "the person who is one of the sixty percent of the U.S. population 1.3 weeks away, 1.3 paychecks away, from a shelter, in other words, a person with problems." A land where one invents a problem to appear on Oprah, is found out, and must beg for the public's forgiveness (hey, James Frey!). A nation overrun with talking heads who deny the existence of reality and get away with it until someone makes an Oscar movie about it and the flashy reinforcement of Hollywood forces the public to accept the undeniable at last.
On "Another Day in America," Anderson continues her assessment of America's failing health and wealth and asks the difficult questions that arise out of a forced renaissance: "And so finally, here we are at the beginning of a whole new era, the start of a brand new world. And now what? How do we start? How do we begin?" Throughout the entirety of Homeland, Anderson poses question after question ("What are days for?" "Are those two people over there actually my real parents?" "Should I get a second Prius?" "Where does love go when love is gone, to what war-torn city?" "Was the Constitution written in invisible ink, has everybody forgotten how to think?"). But the most striking question comes in the form of an anecdote on "Dark Time in the Revolution:"
"Tom Paine wrote the first best-seller at a dark time in the Revolution when we were losing and all the soldiers were deserting. Giving up. And the book was called Common Sense and it was really just a long list of questions. And one of the questions was: Does it make sense for an island to rule a continent? And everybody kind of went hmmmm and they signed back up. And today you could ask: Does it make common sense for a country to rule the world?"
Knowing that history is stuck on repeat, an endless cycle of rise and fall, decline and resurrection, Anderson tears pages from the past to illuminate the present and near future, calling attention to the lessons we should have learned but forgot along the way. Just in case it's still not clicking, she drills the point home: "And you thought there were things that had disappeared forever, things from the Middle Ages, beheadings and hangings and people in cages. And suddenly they were everywhere. And suddenly they're all right. Welcome to the American night." Much has been written about Abu Ghraib, the general lawlessness of the Middle East wars, and the end of the American empire, but no one distills and contains understanding of these issues as flawlessly and effortlessly as Anderson.
On the penultimate track, "The Beginning of Memory," Anderson transports us to a time before the world began, a world with no land, only birds and air. She tells the story of a lark with a predicament: her father has died, but there is no earth in which to bury him. "And finally the lark had a solution. She decided to bury her father in the back of her own head. And this was the beginning of memory. Because, before this, no one could remember a thing. They were just constantly flying in circles, constantly flying in huge circles." In a way, Laurie Anderson acts as this voice in the back of our heads, reminding us of what has already come to pass, reminding us that we can do better.
Homeland is out now. Laurie Anderson will perform at Yoshi's in San Francisco on October 23 and 24, 2010. She'll expand your mind and help you understand, if you let her.