Album Review: David Byrne - Look Into the Eyeball

Before you go into this review looking for a objective, neutral and fair evaluation of one of David Byrne’s late-career albums, an album you’ve probably never heard of but are willing to read a decent appraisal of, in a fashion that lays out the facts bare and for all to see so that you, the reader, can form your own opinion as to whether to listen to it based on the review – before you’ve done all that, be warned:

This review is none of those things. What it is, in fact, is me talking about one of the most heartfelt, joyous, emotional, celebratory, tear-jerking, amazing and fun records ever made.
My favourite record of all time, I might add.

Okay, now that’s out of the way, I can get around to actually reviewing it.

2001’s Look into the Eyeball is David Byrne’s fifth solo record. It’s second in a near-perfect trilogy of albums, bookended by 1997’s Feelings and 2004’s Grown Backwards. These three albums encapsulate everything David Byrne represents – the mad, eccentric, genre-hopping rocker as on the former; the stately, violin-obsessed genius as on the latter and the emotional, pure, perfect songwriter as he appears on Look Into the Eyeball. The album is Byrne’s best condensation of his talents: it’s defies easy categorisation, changing genre from song to song and yet it’s almost perfectly cohesive. Rather than a monolithic statement, Look Into the Eyeball is instead twelve hermetically-sealed pieces of picturesque pop.

David Byrne’s solo work is one of confounding variety. His post-Talking Heads work remains one the greatest forays into world-music that any artist not native to the region has managed. The one thing that unifies it is Byrne’s simplicity – something that is missing from his work with Talking Heads. His songs became less stream-of-consciousness and much less serious. He found perfection in simple pop songs that subvert clichés whilst instinctively following them. Just look to The Revolution on …Eyeball for a perfect example of this. The melody is simple, understated and refined. This is how the whole album plays out.

Here Byrne finds his sound. One unique to him and only him, after all, nobody else would be able to pull it off.
– Kieran Baddeley

Look Into the Eyeball is a patchwork of world-rhythms, squelchy synthesisers and most importantly, strings. The string orchestra that accompanies him is vital to the album’s sound. While he would embrace this more overtly and dramatically on Grown Backwards, …Eyeball is his best use of strings for texture, punctuating every sombre note of The Accident as much as they elevate the ecstatic highs of The Great Intoxication. Here Byrne finds his sound. One unique to him and only him, after all, nobody else would be able to pull it off.

If you add Byrne’s gift for melody to the arrangements on …Eyeball, you get what sounds like a trip around the world, each song imbued with an emotional core that stops them from being mere exercises in genre. Whether it’s the afro-beat explosion of U.B. Jesus which manages to completely circumvent religion’s negative undertones or the faux-funk of Neighbourhood with its charming depiction of courting. The key to the album is innocence. Byrne narrates his songs as if he’s accidently walked into their world. He marvels at life’s mundane pleasures, the small things that really matter and ultimately, how our failings come to sculpt who we are. Walk on Water features one of Byrne’s best lines, “he can walk on water, but he can’t stop falling.” It’s at once hilarious and tragic, yet by the end of the gospel-infused song, everyone’s “walking under water.” Nobody is singled out, we have our failings and that’s okay, David Byrne’s got them too.

In fact, this self-deprecation comes to a head on the albums closer, Everyone’s In Love With You. Byrne’s always idiosyncratic vocal performance is reserved for a paean to love that is as funny and awkward as it is moving. Love can’t be shared yet it’s something that’s universal. Byrne recognises this, so every time he sees others find solace in his love, he highlights his own faults. He’s “jealous and a little proud” he wants to “kill and kiss you too”… he’s human.

The world of Look Into the Eyeball is a better place than this one – it’s more fun, it’s more loving and sometimes, it can be more emotionally crushing. The world of the listener could be better off like this one. So “look into the eyeball of your boyfriend,” “love your life,” “fix broken things,” do everything the songs tell you to. No, you probably can’t “walk on water.” The fact is though, nobody else can either. Byrne recognises the faults in everyone, including himself. If you can’t do something – good. There’ll be people who can’t just like you. Byrne wants you to try all the same and most importantly, have fun trying.