Grown Backwards is a mature seventh solo album from this erstwhile Talking Head that finds him adding opera and jazz to his usual World Beat stew. The difference between this and previous efforts is a more stripped down sound, more emphasis on melody over groove and a consistency of tone provided by the presence of Texas-based chamber group The Tosca Strings on nearly every track.
This album offers not one but two opera arias, “Un di Felice” from Verdi’s La traviata and “Au Fond Du Temple Saint” from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. The latter is a rather incongruous duet with Rufus Wainwright. Byrne also covers Lambchop’s pretty “The Man Who Loved Beer” to good effect.
Elsewhere, Carla Bley’s jazz band backs him up on “Empire.” Unfortunately, there’s not enough going on to distract us from the limitations of Byrne’s affectless tenor. “Astronaut” may be one too many similar sounding melodies. And occasionally, Byrne gets a little too fogeyish for his own good. You can envision him performing the mildly amusing “Gold” on Prairie Home Companion or something. “Psycho Killer” it ain’t.
What hasn’t changed is Byrne’s wry, stream of consciousness lyrics that only he seems to understand. “And on my high school folder / I drew a big gorilla,” he offers, apropos of nothing, on “Civilization.” On the Brazilian rhythm-infused “She Only Sleeps,” he sings “And the world is queer / And the human is strangest of all.”
Byrne is still following his own muse years after retiring the big white suit.