That shuffly sort of framing is one respect in which American Utopia differs from its predecessor, recorded when both America and Talking Heads were in their early Eighties pomp. There, we were watching a spectacle building itself from the floor up, becoming more extravagant with each number. (By the finale, Talking Heads were finally bigger than New York: it would only take a song as infernally catchy as "Road to Nowhere" - reprised here, in a notably less ambivalent, openly celebratory key - to make them global megastars.) Here, the band are all on stage with Byrne, instruments strapped to their shoulders or waists to keep them mobile, within the opening ten minutes. Byrne and choreographer Annie-B Parson rehearsed them, achieving the not-small feat of converting session musicians into fully-fledged backing dancers; Lee, caught on his most self-effacing, best behaved form since 2013's Old Boy remake, was then called in to make a document of the event. (The venue was New York's Hudson Theater; in the closing moments, we see Byrne emerging from the stage door and cycling home, as he reportedly did every night.) The new songs, which don't quite have the same wow factor as the canonical classics, could arguably do with a bit more visual pizzazz than we get from watching well-drilled support technicians cavorting around a tightly defined workspace; there are only so many shapes they can pull after a while. But then American Utopia was always conceived as about more than just the music.
For one thing, we get a fuller political perspective than the angular weirdo Byrne of 1984, still prone to giving interviews in blackface, was capable of articulating: the between-song repartee addresses such contemporary issues as voter registration and police shootings. Stop Making Sense was a record of a gig, but American Utopia at times resembles Byrne's characteristically idiosyncratic riposte to the Trump rallies: intentionally modest in scope, comic in its self-mockery. Watch him spoofing his way through the final minute of "Slippery People", and hear out his drolly inclusive intro to "Everybody's Coming to My House", and it's clear to see the extent to which the frontman has become a showman. "I dance like this/Because it feels so damn good," sings Byrne during "I Dance Like This", a hipster's response to Genesis's "I Can't Dance", before continuing "If I could dance better/You know that I would". Yet the lack of exceptionalism there appears key to the utopia: Byrne makes himself small - eschewing the old big suit, becoming part of an ever-shifting chorus line - so as to make greater space for others. And what's really crucial is that even when the music cuts out - as it does during that song - the show goes on, regardless of Trump, Covid, your obstacle of choice. That show now lands among us, on streaming in the absence of unshuttered cinemas, after months of viral videos capturing the joy our fellow shut-ins - and disenfranchised gig-goers - have rediscovered in dancing around bedrooms and kitchens not much smaller than Byrne's stage. If I'm reading this project right, that kind of bliss may only be possible when nine-to-five capitalism is put on hold, life isn't business as usual, and people have the time and energy to cut a rug. Isn't this just a brainiac's rebranding of the message progressive pop has been pushing ever since the countercultural Sixties? Almost certainly. But amid this punishing new world order, sometimes the freedoms we take delight in can be as minimal as kicking off your shoes and socks. And you get very strange looks if you do that in a cinema.
David Byrne's American Utopia is now available to rent via Prime Video.