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David Byrne & Fatboy Slim – Here Lies Love – Album Review

A tribute to the parasol-twirling, shoe-hoarding former first lady of the Philippines, set to 1970s and 80s disco.

Written by Kat Phan

There are certain musicians who do what they like. These are the frontline soldiers of the music scene, sales ed venturing into the unknown; fearless of the landmines that could blow their careers into smithereens. Just ask Britney, it’s a dangerous world out there.

David Byrne, on the other hand, appears to be made of vibranium. The former Talking Heads frontman has the uncanny ability to cut artistic diamonds out of pretty much everything he turns his hand to, and his latest project is no exception. In an unlikely collaboration, Byrne has teamed up with club DJ and dance-music producer Fatboy Slim (Norman Cook) to compose a disco opera about the life of Imelda Marcos, who, along with her dictator husband Ferdinand, ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. Confused? Well, I’m not surprised.

Five years in the making, Here Lies Love is a song cycle paying homage to the “Iron Butterfly” (as she was known), which tells the story of Imelda’s rise and fall through a sequence of songs written by Byrne, with Fatboy Slim providing the infectious beats. The impressive and eclectic name-check of female vocalists, including girl-of-the-moment Florence Welch, Martha Wainwright, Tori Amos, Cyndi Lauper, and French chanteuse Camille, reaffirms the faith that Byrne’s fellow artists have in him in pulling off a potentially bonkers project such as this. Steve Earle and Byrne himself also make appearances on the record, where the twenty-two singers take us on a journey of Imelda’s life, from her humble origins to fleeing the country in exile. The roles of the former First Lady and those she was closest to are played out over the 89-minute song cycle, with the most notable character being Estrella Cumpus, Imelda’s childhood servant and friend, who was cast aside as Imelda began to occupy the upper echelons of Filipino society.

The record opens with a catchy, upbeat number from Florence Welch sung in a theatrical style, with a soaring chorus (no surprise there) to orchestral arrangements and squelchy electro. The title track details Imelda’s poverty-stricken childhood, her dreams for a better life and is amusingly also how she would like to be remembered when she dies: “When I am called by God above, don’t have my name carved into the stone, just say, Here Lies Love.”

The story arc continues with Imelda’s early hunger for fame and all things beautiful, captured by Martha Wainwright’s ballad-paced ‘The Rose of Tacloban’: “Elegant women on a magazine page…cutting out their faces, and replacing them with my own,” to her courtship and whirlwind romance with Ferdinand Marcos on ‘Eleven Days’, sung by Cyndi Lauper, who embodies Imelda’s excitement at the prospect of a diamond-dusted future. Over catchy bass lines and retro grooves, Lauper sings: “He gave me—two roses, one is open, one is closed, one is the future, and—one is my love.”

As Imelda makes the transition from simple country gal to fully-fledged member of the Filipino elite, Estrella’s gradual abandonment is highlighted in ‘How Are You?’ by Nellie McKay, in an imagined letter from Estrella to Imelda punctuated by a lively Latin-inspired chorus, and ‘When She Passed By’, which takes on a country-dance slant as Estrella only gets to admire Imelda from afar: “Did you see me outside? Did you see me? When you passed by in your car? Ah well, that’s okay.”

Further along in the song cycle, the record takes a more sinister turn, with angrier, edgier vocals deployed in the form of Alice Russell as Imelda acknowledges her husband’s infidelity: “You play around with that woman, Didn’t you know I cared?…If you prefer that slut—okay.” The last few songs paint a not-so-pretty-picture of martial law, with delicate vocals aptly provided by Natalie Merchant, and also the assassination of Marcos’ rival, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino (who dated Imelda in her youth, but rejected her because she was “too tall”), and then Imelda and Ferdinand being airlifted out of the Malacanang Palace (the White House of Manila) by U.S. marines (there is no mention of the infamous 3,000 pairs of shoes left behind – Byrne never likes to make reference to the obvious).

Among those making an appearance on Here Lies Love, stand out tracks include Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Eleven Days’, who captures the courtship thrill with a sexy and sassy deliverance; Roisin Murphy’s ‘Don’t you Agree’, with her husky tone perfectly pitched against Moloko’s signature staccato sleaze-horns (although hearing Murphy sing “Now, who stood up to the Japanese? Who cares about the Philippines?” pitched against this backdrop does throw you a bit); and Sharon Jones’ ‘Dancing Together’, whose muscular vocals finely complement the attitude-laden funk rhythms. Byrne shines in ‘American Troglodyte’, a song about American excess and the Filipino peoples’ fascination of it, employing a distinctive Talking Heads sound with sexy riffs and swirling synths. All in all, as diverse as the artists may sound on the roll call, the vocalists manage to meld their sequences together to seamless effect, without compromising their own unique style.

Despite the various themes, the record takes on a definitely 1970s and early 1980s disco theme, to honour Imelda’s love of the club scene (she was a regular at Studio 54). There are several moments on the album, such as in Theresa Andersson’s ‘Ladies in Blue’, where you can visualise the former First Lady throwing shapes around her New York townhouse (she had a dance floor and a mirror ball installed for entertaining and pleasure).

Here Lies Love is available in a deluxe hard-bound 120-page book, containing a DVD of news footage, but I got the poor woman’s version which has a double CD presented in a foldable cardboard case and pretty pictures of Imelda’s mother, Remedios, “Ninoy”, the Marcos’s in various poses and Estrella who appears as a blacked out smidge on the sleeve, presumably to illustrate a woman has clearly been left in the shadow.

As far as an analysis of the final piece goes, rather than painting Imelda as a monster, Byrne presents her as a sympathetic and tragic figure, one who lived in her own “bubble world” with an unashamed love of luxury. The record is more about human empathy than politics. Byrne is not proclaiming that Imelda has been misunderstood nor is he asking that we forgive her, but he artfully attempts to make us try to understand what drove her to behave in the way that she did; he considers how her inferiority complex about coming from humble origins may have motored her greed at the expense of her people; and how her gradual dissociation to Estrella may have been the caused by her wanting to rid herself of any association to her difficult past. The record in its entirety is a tribute to Imelda as Byrne tries to demystify such a well-known figure who people know so little about beyond the designer shoes and Swiss bank accounts.

It is inevitable that the musical-influenced style of the record will draw comparisons to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita, but as Byrne has stated in previous interviews, the similarities end beyond both women being dictators’ wives. Here Lies Love is an adventurous project delivered by Byrne and although not every track is an instant classic, it’s definitely worth exploring for the innovation. It is a record that manages to be creative and intelligent yet highly entertaining. Somehow, David Byrne has managed to defy the odds and make his way safely back to the trenches to come up trumps again.


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