KEXP NOVEMBER 23, 2012 - by Chris Estey


This is the age of the musician's biography, even if publishing has been taking the same hard blows as the music business. People certainly aren't reading any less (even if it's on a screen in their lap), and due to the unholy depths of music fandom, recent tomes by the leader of The Who, Neil Young, and others have been hitting the (New York Times bestseller) charts.

But what will the thoughtful, tasteful, less mainstream reader choose as the most inspiring and unique autobiography of the year? Probably How Music Works by David Byrne. The once-Talking Heads frontman describes his own fandom, not just for music, but for art, dance, the theater, and all aspects of performing and recording as he details the creation of his albums with that American punk/new wave band and all the projects on his own. Openly citing his inspirations from comrade Brian Eno and their long-lasting and revolutionary collaborations on the Talking Heads middle-period albums and experiments (My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts), to how Sufjan Stevens awed him with all manner of performance arts on-stage during a live show he caught, Byrne explores what moves him. And he writes about it in such a way that it moves us. He is thrilled with the possibilities of the human voice, from monks to Valley Girls; he is fascinated by the happy accidents of musical miscegenation in Cuban and Haitian music; he even uses writer's block as a way to open up to voices outside himself. Every roadblock becomes a hurdle to be more inspired to leap beyond, and he shows us how. If I was a musician or was buying a book for one, this would be the first on my list of holiday purchases. The cold irony of the title and cover (black on white Helvetica minimalism; literally seeming like a "how to" guide) might strike some as too flat, but a glance at its combination of ideas, data, reporting, and criticism quickly draws those truly interested in the topic inside.

The book has confused some readers and reviewers for focusing a lot on technology, such as the invention of recorded sound and the use of recording tape. But this is one of the rare times an innovative creator has not talked down to his own fans, instead pulling them into the studio with him to understand all the levels of creativity that go into making songs and full albums. You've been listening to certain records for years because many had decades of inspiration and experience put into them. Most of them are lasting this long as classics because they were made with such care and a sweep of talented input. Byrne is blunt about what he likes and doesn't like about modern recording, and by his own catholic tastes encourages others to attempt more than just sound like just another collection of sounds happening at this moment in history.