In performance: Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson’s voice sounds like a mother’s. It’s decidedly feminine, unadorned, a little distanced, with a suppressed hint of lusciousness around the edges of words. Anderson’s work is about telling stories, and those emerge in a sing-song lilt, homespun as a mother talking to a child, as if seeking to reassure that everything is well. Until, at the end of a sentence, an upward inflection, like a glint in the eye, signals a question, and the possibility that everything is not.
Anderson came to the Birchmere last night with material from “Homeland,” her first studio album in a decade, which came out in June. “Homeland” was created from work Anderson accumulated over months on the road; it was performed in the studio with a rich spectrum of other musicians and voices, from Tuvan throat singers (in “Transitory Life”) to Anderson’s husband, Lou Reed, who plays guitar on the song “Only an Expert,” a starkly political song that’s the easiest to grasp and excerpt. At the Birchmere, though, Anderson was alone with her electric violin, a single other musician (Rob Burger), and a panoply of sampled and recorded sounds, from backup singers to the struck dead metal of a particular kind of bell, like remembered ghosts.
(read more after the jump)
That’s fitting, since memory is one theme of “Homeland” -- a wistful backdrop to its biting evocation of present-day America. Anger, though, is another, and possibly bigger theme. Anderson, 63, has found a creative way to present and channel a sentiment stereotypically common among people her age: that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. The word “Homeland” has taken on a sinister tinge in the post 9-11 world; here, it labels an album of carefully channeled anger.
Anger is most obvious in “Only an Expert,” an indictment of the ways in which people are told not to think for themselves because “only an expert can deal with the problem.” On the album, this song is fluid and downright catchy, with a dance beat as a counterpoint to the bitterness of words about experts assuring us there is no problem with things like recession and bailouts and climate change. Last night, live, Anderson gave the song more roughness and force, backing up the repeated catchphrase with harsh drumbeats: less seductive, harder to bear.
Anger, though, yields to wistfulness: an evocation of a dead grandmother, or “The Beginning of Memory,” a poignant fable about the days before the creation of the world when there was only air, and flying birds, so that a lark whose father died had no option but to bury him in the back of her head (the dawn of remembering). With this contrast, Anderson strikes the time-honored pose of a romantic, acerbic about the present and longing for a better past. But she avoids cliché by making naiveté a deliberate element of her work.
She ceded the stage at two points to another character: Fenway Bergamot, her male alter ego, whose face (Anderson, adorned with bits of mustache) graces “Homeland’s” cover. Anderson developed a mike filter that converted her voice into a male range as early as the 1970s; here, Bergamot appeared as a fully developed character of his own, slightly more effete than Anderson, with a different set of facial expressions, and an even bleaker though also more colorful view of a soured country.
Once work has been processed and polished into an album, it can be hard to open it up again to allow people in. Anderson offered a succinct night, a little more than an hour in length, closing with the same wordless violin solo that ends the record, as if speech had been silenced. Not hers, though. She’ll be back with “Delusion,” her latest big piece, at the Clarice Smith Center in October.
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