After kicking around the New York art scene for a decade, Chicago native Laurie Anderson reached the masses in the early 1980s when the improbable UK success of “O Superman” suddenly made her the world’s most famous performance artist. Singing in a droll deadpan and playing violin and keyboards, she followed up on her surprise stardom with two albums of haunting, thought-provoking and high-tech explorations of language and technology buoyed by deadpan irony, all of which made Anderson very much a creature of the ’80s.
After appearing on several compilation albums, the most prominent being You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With, a two-record set also featuring John Giorno and William S. Burroughs., Anderson unleashed her first masterpiece. Big Science, which features the surprise answering-machine hit “O Superman,” is perhaps the most brilliant chunk of psychedelia since Sgt. Pepper. Anderson combines singsong narrative (often electronically treated) with a strong musical base that evokes, yet postdates, traditional musical forms.
With the help of co-producers Bill Laswell, Roma Baran and Peter Gabriel (who sings on “his” cut), Anderson continues merging not-readily-identifiable morsels of ’60s psychedelia and ’70s progressivism into a blinding studio- perfect maelstrom of oddity on Mister Heartbreak, an excellent LP that was overshadowed in the year of its release by the five-record United States Live, a summation of the state of Anderson’s bewildering but popular performance art. Anderson and crew performed United States whole in London, Zurich and New York, where the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which commissioned the last of its four parts, provided the site (in February 1983) for recording the whole kit and kaboodle. Perhaps better suited for videotape, the album mixes spoken-word monologues, music and noise (in that order) with snippets of film, slides, lighting and other visual effects that are inevitably lost here. Anderson’s impressionistic multimedia portrait of the USA makes a good case for her talents as standup comedian (“There are ten million stories in the naked city, but nobody can remember which is theirs”), yet reveals its miscellany of truths slowly and coolly. Although it’s a little like having an artsy friend over who always talks at, rather than to, you, United States Live remains a definitive statement of what a clever artist can get away with — and that’s a compliment. (Years later, the set was reissued as a four-CD box.)
Home of the Brave is the digitally recorded soundtrack to Anderson’s performance film. Joined by an all- star collection of players (Adrian Belew, David Van Tieghem, Nile Rodgers, Bill Laswell), she proffers technically exquisite versions of familiar items as well as new compositions, all imbued with her usual blend of dadaist humor and bemused social criticism.
Besides demonstrating Anderson’s future as an urban Judy Collins (check the title track), Strange Angels goes to a lot of trouble — and uses such sidepersons as the Roches, Bobby McFerrin, Anton Fier and Van Tieghem — to uncover its few gems: “Baby Doll,” in which a bossy brain orders the protagonist around via scribbled notes, the wittily feminist “Beautiful Red Dress” and “The Day the Devil.” It would be nice to say that Anderson doesn’t need theatrical vocal inflections or intellectual songwriting gimmicks to make memorable, significant music, but she does. Despite the unfailingly high level of craft and taste, songs without meaty hooks glide right by without leaving a trace.
Anderson waited a long time before making a record in the ’90s, co-producing Bright Red/Tightrope with Brian Eno. The results of this post-modern dream team don’t even remotely live up to expectations; oddly enough, Eno’s contribution is virtually undetectable. Even appearances by Lou Reed, Adrian Belew and downtown Manhattan luminaries like Arto Lindsay and Joey Baron can’t redeem the flat music, which recalls Yoko Ono’s blander latter-day moments. Still, as Anderson softly declaims over the polished, skeletal synth and rhythm tracks, some fine poetry does emerge, especially on “World Without End” (from the first half, dubbed Bright Red) and “Love Among the Sailors” and “Night in Baghdad,” from the Tightrope portion.
The Ugly One With the Jewels, recorded live in London, is Anderson’s idea of an unplugged record, basically a spoken-word performance with sound effects that takes its text from Anderson’s book, Stories From the Nerve Bible. Full of the dry, ironic wit and cultural insights that made her famous, the best tracks — “The End of the World,” the Andy Kaufman reminiscence “The Rotowhirl” and “The Night Flight from Houston” — celebrate the surreality of the mundane (and, often, of Anderson’s career). The sounds complement the text beautifully and the effect is riveting, evocative and cinematic — the best way to listen to this album is to wait for a quiet evening, dim the lights and kick back. Then again, at over 70 minutes, two quiet evenings might be required.