Album Review: Laurie Anderson - Big Science

Laurie Anderson’s Big Science is an album that is obsessed with time. Its progression, its regression and its stalling. It fixates on the mundanity of modern life, suffusing it with a sense of dread about what is to come and a sense of anguish that we haven’t traversed too far from our origins. It’s an album that exists in the past, present and future and doesn’t enjoy being in any of those three places at once. Anderson’s simple exclamation of “this is the time, and this is the record of the time” becomes less prosaic and more ‘mosaic’ in its multiple layers. This is the record of the time, it’s the record of all times, but that doesn’t mean it enjoys being there.

Let me explain. Anderson’s magnum opus is her performance piece United States, a multi-media suite of songs, animations and spoken vignettes surveying (or attempting to surmise) the entirety of modern life. It was most conclusively documented in her 1984 live album United States Live however its sprawling ten-sided run time is an investment of time that the album itself seems to decree a waste of time. 1982’s Big Science is a more than successful attempt at condensing down the piece into a digestible 39 minutes. Those 39 minutes condense that piece by turning its examinations from the microcosmic to the abstract. The largest of these abstractions is time and how our lives are run by it, are slaves to it and yet it still manages to imbue a sense of timelessness- hence how it arrives in the past, present and future. If I’m struggling to get my point across cogently it’s because, like Big Science is itself a condensation of wider source material, this review is an attempt to condense the genius that is the album.

It’s perhaps reductive to say but Laurie Anderson is a spoken word artist. Each of the tracks sees the listener guided steadily by her narration through the topics Anderson chooses to cover. She binds the album’s sonic landscape together with a lattice-work of unusual cadence. Her rhythm is constantly impeccable, every word and every syllable exaggerated or understated to achieve the desired effect. Within one word the tone of the song can change completely. The gap between “upright, locked” and “position” on ‘From the Air’ is one of half seconds but manages to make its description of aeroplane tray tables sound profound in the extreme; at the song’s peak, her downtrodden “we’re all going down… together” when describing the plane crashing reinforces the song’s overbearing sense of anxiety. Anderson’s flow is cold and exacting but it manages to conjure emotions singing can’t.

Big Science also dissects the progress we have made as humans…We stumble from one step to the other, just waiting for the moment we inevitably stumble too hard and don’t catch ourselves from falling into oblivion.
– Kieran Baddeley

Big Science, as the title suggests, also dissects the progress we have made as humans. Whereas United States Live covered a wide array of bases in numerous songs, Big Science sometimes follows its own internal logic, with different songs picking up threads or fleshing out ideas touched upon three or four songs previous. In amongst the hectic flurry of horns that make up ‘From the Air’, Anderson drops a non-sequitur into a decidedly modern landscape of the plane crashing. “Why? Because I’m a caveman,” she coyly reveals, as if exposing a secret that threatens to turn the song into some twisted sci-fi. Her omni-presence suggested in the next line of “Why? Because I’ve got eyes in the back of my head,” further connotes the idea that she’s been here for a long time, surveying everything and everyone. This survey reveals its findings a few tracks later with the critique “You’re walking, and you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling. With each step, you fall forward slightly and then catch yourself from falling,” a scathing look at humanity, suggesting we’re always on the verge of collapse, as if every scientific breakthrough is just another part of catching ourselves from falling. In Anderson’s world, we stumble from one step to the other, just waiting for the moment we inevitably stumble too hard and don’t catch ourselves from falling into oblivion.

This omnipresence posits Anderson in her own world as some sort of anti-deity, always there and always watching but rarely intervening to make our lives better. On one of the albums pithiest lines, she asks “You know, I think we should put some mountains here. Otherwise, what are all the characters going to fall off of?” Its dark and hilarious and is wrapped up with a line delivery that suggests just a note of inquisitiveness but bookended with a harrowing aftertaste.

For every big bad wolf that hides within the album, there are also moments of complete transcendental sunshine; car lights on a lonely abandoned road. When Anderson yodels on the title track, it’s an absurdist break in the clouds, one that reaffirms the album’s tongue in cheek assessment. Big Science is full of these moments, small instances of otherworldly humour that ground the narrator’s larger concerns. Whether its playing a perverted form of doomed ‘Simon Says’ or the all-too-obvious noting that the sky is in fact “sky-blue,” these little winks and nods stop the album from plunging too deep into the avant-garde mess its created for itself. All of this doesn’t even touch upon the sprightly and kinetic ‘Example #22’ which is the most fun you can milk from the album and also seemingly shows Anderson having the most fun as well. Ignoring its flippancy, the moment on ‘Born, Never Asked’ when Anderson divulges “You were born and so, you’re free. So, happy birthday,” become genuinely life-affirming, a little suggestion that our narrator does in fact have compassion.

Big Science’s grandiose preoccupations would bear little to no weight if the music accompanying it didn’t reach for the same stratospheric heights. Luckily, the album remains a sonic marvel.
– Kieran Baddeley

Big Science’s grandiose preoccupations would bear little to no weight if the music accompanying it didn’t reach for the same stratospheric heights. Luckily, the album remains a sonic marvel, an example of 80’s production in its extreme but managing to sound utterly timeless- after all, one can’t forget this is the record of all times. Anchored in a deep reverence for minimalist compositions like Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air and fleshed out with the stylistic requirements of the time, it’s the dichotomy between styles that keeps Big Science sounding ever-contemporary, an album obsessed with time yet completely detached from it. The convergence of these two ideals is best represented by the album’s most sonically stunning track, ‘Born, Never Asked.’ On it, the simple backing of a note struck twice and circular string decoration is slightly offset with the (still-simple) synth embellishments- the same basic song components make a reprisal on the album’s final two tracks as well, a cyclic turn of hand that adds to the already oppressive cohesiveness of Big Science. The results are stunning and often tear-inducing in their beauty. (This also comes as a good entry point if wanting to analyse Anderson’s recent work with the Kronos Quartet on Landfall.)

The processed whines and distorted wind section on ‘Sweaters’ are all manipulated in mockery of the bagpipes that permeate the track with an annoying undercurrent. However, the gated drums that roll up and crest over Anderson’s words before crashing down in watery torrents are the focal point. Inventive and rhythmic, they are one of the album’s only percussive moments and are at stark contract with austere ambience and calm of the following track, ‘Walking and Falling’. It would be easy to attribute Big Science’s greatness to Anderson’s words and flow alone however, when one does peek behind the curtain, as the narrator asks herself on ‘Born, Never Asked’, it’s not hard to see the greatness that underpins her genius. Deep within the heart of the album however is the album’s greatest marvel. A track of immense beauty and pain. That song is ‘O Superman.’
‘O Superman’ is an event. The kind of song that comes around one or twice in a lifetime. It’s a complete miracle, one of intrinsic cultural significance and staggering personal resonance. To talk about it is to assess everything that makes the album great. So, in Anderson’s own words “you better get ready.”

At surface value, ‘O Superman (For Massenet)’ is ostensibly an indictment of the military- an assessment of its failings and a wider critique of the futility of war and its presence in society. This is in parallel with the song’s discussion of technology as Anderson has stated in interviews that it directly references the crash of a military helicopter outside Tehran in 1980 – a visceral example of technology letting us down. Indeed, most of the album’s lyrics can be interpreted to fit this explanation: “hold me mom… in your petrochemical arms” positions the ‘Mom’ figure as the US Government or war itself. With a song structure based around Jules Massenet’s opera ‘Le Cid’ and a reading of the inscription that lies above the entrance to the James Farley Post Office in New York, the song is labyrinthine in its references and influences. However, to merely focus on the song’s structure and smarts is to ignore the personal impact it can have on a person when listening across its eight-minute runtime.

Laurie Anderson created a masterpiece of social critique stretching far into the past and also into the future. It remains to this day a touchstone of the avant-garde, a true cultural and historical icon.
– Kieran Baddeley

Built around a vocodered “Ha” that repeats on into infinity and subtle bird song in the background, the instrumentation brings Anderson’s vocally manipulated voice to the fore. The effect of the vocoder at first is one of detachment- an alien reciting stories from a long-gone world- but the song is constructed as a phone conversation (or answer phone deepening on how you view it) and thus gives it an intensely human feel to it. It evokes the close mic intimacy of ASMR with the dread of a final phone call before the world burns. It’s comforting and unsettling. It’s difficult to pin where the song’s overwhelming emotion emanates from but, one can hazard a guess. At the song’s opening refrain, Anderson runs down a simplified list of authorities, “O Superman, O Judge, O Mum and Dad;” the unreachable superhero, the autocratic diplomat and then the immediately recognisable parents. The sense of home in this last paring is emphasised by a repetition which sounds like the comforted sigh of a reunion. By familiarising ourselves with a base to touch home with, Anderson makes the collected-but-obviously-worried “Hello? This is your Mother, are you there? Are you coming home?” so emotionally gut-punching its almost unfair.

‘O Superman’ is an endlessly creative song. It touches on war, family and technology and does so with a post-modern reassessment of 9/11 dread. It’s indicative of the album as whole. Big Science is a record obsessed with time. Times we’ve had, times we’ve yet to have and times we’re never going to have. With the record, Laurie Anderson created a masterpiece of social critique stretching far into the past and also into the future. It remains to this day a touchstone of the avant-garde, a true cultural and historical icon.

On the cover, Anderson is pictured wearing opaque sunglasses. After listening to the album, it’s easy to see why. Big Science and its companion piece were not predictions of the future, nor were they endlessly philosophical musings. Anderson, and by extension the album’s narrator, is as lost in this world as we are. While the glasses may suggest Anderson can see where she’s going, and the album certainly suggests she does, she can actually only see as far as any of us can: we can see where we’ve been, but the future is a compete mystery. On Big Science however, Laurie Anderson got closer to seeing ahead than any of us ever will.