Byrne, Dylan: The Wise Guy And The Wise Man

It seems appropriate that Bob Dylan and David Byrne released their new CDs, “Tempest” and “Love This Giant” on the same day. For my money they’re still the two most intriguing artists in rock music today despite the fact they’re almost polar opposites.

As they make their way to Boston this fall, think of it this way: Dylan revived his career after his admittedly empty 1980s work by going deeper into the past, striking a pose that’s part Mark Twain and part Muddy Waters. Byrne has stayed vital by his constant quest for what’s most interesting about the present, and the future, collaborating with everyone from Fatboy Slim and techno artists to, now, St. Vincent, the stage name of Annie Clark.

It’s easy to take Byrne, who plays the Orpheum Sept. 23 with Clark, for granted. None of his post-Talking Heads work has the zeitgeist-shaking power of that seminal group, but then that’s true of most artists after their initial burst onto the scene. What’s more interesting is Byrne’s determination to make sense of the world by keeping up with it, and not just musically, as witnessed by his books on Powerpoint, bicycles, visual art, and his latest, “How Music Works” (roundly trashed by the New York Times). I haven’t seen the book, though his prose tends to the over-earnest, something his music never is. (He’ll be speaking about it with Steven Pinker at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center the night after the concert, but it’s sold out.)

Still, it’s by his music ye shall know him and his music remains as fascinating as ever, even without the visceral bump of Head-ier times. In fact “Love This Giant” almost demands that you sit and listen to it, as the brass band backup doesn’t pack the kind of rock wallop that provides cleaning-the-house background music. Nor are Byrne’s estimable melodic gifts that much in evidence, so this isn’t really music that washes over you, as much of his solo music can.

But start by watching the video of “Who."

Byrne, dressed in a suit and seemingly on his way to work, sees St. Vincent lying in the road and can’t figure out what to do. Eventually, their awkward dancing turns into a “Road to Nowhere” black-and-white ode to disassociation and non-representational narrative that makes David Lynch look like a documentarian.

Although Byrne’s and St. Vincent’s voices aren’t all that complementary, they’re artistic soulmates. Some of the most interesting instrumental work by Clark, a Berklee College dropout by the way, involves the odd juxtaposition of instruments, a la Byrne. Vocally, I love the way that her voice moves from the conversational to choral crescendos, somewhat reminiscent, though not as manic, as early Byrne. (They’ll be singing their own songs as well as their collaborations at the concert.)

“Who” sets the tone for the CD, featuring a typical Byrne litany of questions about identity, love, politics, and disconnection. There’s a “Life During Wartime” feel to many of the songs that combine with 21st century angst at the speed of things. Still, despite a hankering for a romantic dinner for two, there’s a determination to embrace what the present and future throw at us – mixed with more than a little irony. The propulsive “I Should Watch TV” probably shouldn’t be taken at face value.

‘Tempest’ Gains Strength

There aren’t any TVs on “Tempest,” Dylan’s latest, or mobile phones, electronic blips and bleeps or much of anything else that would suggest a 21st century man. Nor will there be when he plays the TD Garden Nov. 18 with Mark Knopfler. He sounds like he’d be most comfortable leading a drinking song in a 1950s road house. Or an 1850s dirge at Boot Hill. The most radical step he’s taken lately has been to add an accordion to the mix.

But what a mix. Right from the start, with “Duquesne Whistle,” he smashes forward from an old-style country and western jam to a boogie-woogie train ride blowing through America, finding joy and sorrow amid love and loss, religion and rebellion, sentimental sights and no-good towns. Despite his evoking of a Judeo-Christian God from time to time, he seems more like a cowboy Buddhist, seeing no need to reconcile those extremes, or even of life and death.

Take his video for the song, which like Byrne’s and St. Vincent’s, is a darkly humorous if violent narrative. A young man’s obsession with a rich woman leads him into nothing but trouble. Will Dylan and his entourage, marching down the street, be his savior? (Dylan deservedly won an Oscar for one of the songs that revived his reputation, “Things Have Changed.” He will never win one for his acting.)


Dylan’s artistic choices might seem like a reactionary response to changes around him or a geezer-like acceptance of senior citizenship. They’re anything but. Dylan obviously pioneered the move from folk music to rock, but his storytelling abilities got mashed up in a haze of an empty ‘80s stew of hard-rock rhythms and personal setbacks, not to mention a born-again self-righteousness that was hardly the most vital part of his resumé.

Still, he’s managed to incorporate his Old Testament rabbinical strain, a New Testament love of Jesus, and that aforementioned Buddhist acceptance into a latter-day persona that embraces licentiousness, vaguely lefty politics, and life lived to the hilt. Musically, just look at the artists who dot his “Artist’s Choice” CD for Starbucks from a few years ago — Pee Wee Crayton, the Stanley Brothers with the Clinch Mountain Boys, Junior Wells, Billie Holiday, Wanda Jackson and a ukulele and accordion-led bands.

All of that is reflected in “Tempest,” along with songwriting skills that still grab you by the throat. He may not exult in the kind of irony that Byrne relishes, but “I’ve been through Hell. What good did it do?” needn’t take an ironical back seat to anybody. Jon Pareles, one of Dylan’s most astute observers, noted in his New York Times review that he hadn’t incorporated any of the new songs into the opening of his current tour, though that could change by his November gig at the Garden.

The “Tempest” songs are long, but justifiably so. I’m not sure I needed the seven-minute tribute to John Lennon after the 14-minute title song about the Titanic (complete with Leonardo DiCaprio) but even here Dylan shows a way of making a fictional account of events seem like the real thing. They’re Dylan’s real thing, anyway.

Dylan’s ventures into the past, like Byrne’s glimpses into the future, make for one glorious artistic present.

Other great Byrne and Dylan duets

David Byrne and ...

  • Selena, "God's Child" ("Blue in the Face," Luaka Bop)
  • Rufus Wainwright, "Au Fond du Temple Saint" ("Grown Backwards," Nonesuch)
  • Marisa Monte, "Waters of March" ( "Red Hot + Rio," Antilles/Verve)
  • X-Press 2, "Lazy" ("Muzikizum," Skint/Columbia)
  • Rosanne Cash, "What We Really Want" ("Columbia Records Radio Hour, Vol. 1, Columbia)
  • Paul van Dyk, "Fall With Me" ("In Between," Mute)
  • Thievery Corporation, "The Heart's a Lonely Hunter" ("The Cosmic Game," ESL)
  • Brian Eno  ("Everything That Happens Will Happen Today," Todo Mundo/Opal)
  • Caetano Veloso ("Caetano Veloso and David Byrne Live at Carnegie Hall," Nonesuch)
  • Dirty Projectors, "Knotty Pine" ("Dark Was the Night," 4AD)

Bob Dylan and ...

  • The Byrds, "Mr. Tambourine Man" ("The Byrds" box set, Columbia)
  • The Band, "I Shall Be Released" ("The Last Waltz," WB/Rhino)
  • Joan Osborne, "Chimes of Freedom" ("The '60s,"  Polygram)
  • Johnny Cash, "One Too Many Mornings" ("The Man, His World, His Music" DVD and various CD bootlegs of the Dylan-Cash recording session)
  • Joan Baez, "The Water Is Wide" ("Bob Dylan Live 1975," Columbia)
  • Willie Nelson, "Heartland" ("Across the Borderline," Columbia)
  • Pete Seeger, "Playboys and Playgirls: ("Duets," Vanguard)
  • Ramblin' Jack Elliot "Mr. Tambourine Man" ("No Direction Home," Columbia)
  • Johnny Cash, "Girl From the North Country" ("Nashville Skyline," Columbia)
  • Joan Baez, "Blowin' in the Wind" (Bob Dylan Live 1975," Columbia)
Headshot of Ed Siegel

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



More from WBUR

Listen Live