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The Wire APRIL 2006 - by Ken Hollings
BRIAN ENO & DAVID BYRNE: MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS
The remastered version of Byrne & Eno's haunted Fourth World collaboration spooks Ken Hollings
Back then, he could have been talking straight at the listener: Do you hear voices? You do, so you are possessed. The confident spectral laugh preceding the statement only helped clinch it. First released almost twenty-five years ago, what gave My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts its disturbing edge was the slow dawning realisation that, caught up somewhere deep within the regime of the popular song, we were all now starting to hear voices. You are a believer born again, the voice went on, and yet you hear voices and you are possessed.
Transmitted over the airwaves via an armed forces radio network, the unidentified New York exorcist responsible for this declaration spoke for and from an order of experience so far removed from the prevailing habits of the time that even he didn't know he was a part of it. Nameless, stripped of identity and purpose, he is nothing now but a voice, a set of ghostly lines and routines, all set-up and no pay-off. We hear the sighs and heavy breathing of his spiritual charge, intended by God to be a virtuous woman, but learn nothing of her fate. She remains, like the torments she is enduring, a phantom presence.
Ghosts have been drifting through the system since the time of Edison, but this was one of the first occasions that their condition had been articulated with such precision and through so popular a medium. Along with the indignant radio host featured on America Is Waiting, the unidentified inflamed caller, the smooth politician on Mea Culpa, and the anonymous radio evangelist whispering strange promises throughout Come With Us, the unnamed exorcist of The Jezebel Spirit occupies a shifting, unbounded foreground. Each of the individual utterances is isolated, and its delivery tightly controlled. What's missing - or rather, what's been carefully removed - is context. Put it another way: these are pop songs for an age where communication has become increasingly fragmented, and meaning more evasive and nomadic.
Although approaching the problem from slightly different angles, both Byrne and Eno seemed to have arrived at the same impasse: while composing, recording and playing techniques could be radically transformed in any number of ways, the traditional relationship between the singer and the song remained pretty much unchanged. The two seemed inseparable, to the extent that figuring out what the song was about rapidly became of far less importance than the ability to identify who actually was singing it. The best you could ever hope to get away with was poetry. Anything else was just an excess of information.
Eno skirted the predicament in the early 1970s by releasing three albums of songs that were essentially about nothing at all, while the lyrics Byrne wrote for Talking Heads during the latter part of the '70s managed with some success to exploit the gap that opens up in every song between one line and the next. It's only when they went back to radio, a medium that helped propagate the pop song in the first place, that new possibilities began to present themselves.
It seems to me that radio in America states the boundary conditions of madness, Eno remarked in an interview shortly after the release of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. It's a madness that hinges on the deregulated relationship between who is speaking and what is being said. Its boundaries, furthermore, are anything but fixed. The album's opening track, America Is Waiting, is a mass of uninflected rhythmic fragments that sounds as if it may fall apart at any second. Whatever's holding the piece together, it's certainly not the ranting phone-in host whose outpourings we can hear. He's far too caught up in moral outrage to notice where he is or even what's going on around him.
What becomes plain on this digitally remastered version is the extent to which the production techniques themselves are what provide coherence. Nearly a quarter of a century after its initial release, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts remains a beautifully finished work, despite its complexity: every line and fragment in place, every surface and effect neatly separated out.
This, however, is not so much a reissue of the original record as a partial summation of its previous incarnations: the track Qu'ran, which appeared on some earlier editions, has been removed from the final listing, while Very, Very Hungry, which was not included on the others, has been retained.
Part of the album's overall polish is down to its rather fractured history. Byrne and Eno recorded a preliminary version in 1979 following their work together on Fear Of Music, Talking Heads' third album and the second produced by Eno. Copyright wrangles over the use of a tape of a dead evangelist's voice on one of the original tracks, along with the record company's reluctance to release what they had already recorded, led to My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts being shelved, and work commencing on what would become Talking Heads' fourth album, Remain In Light.
Outtakes from the earlier sessions, included here as a series of bonus tracks, testify to how much Byrne and Eno re-thought their approach to the material in the intervening period. Defiant, constructed out of the same rhythmic beds that would eventually make up The Jezebel Spirit, has the folksy throwaway charm of a car salesman's pitch, but none of the chillingly focused drive of the finished track. Simultaneously a prologue and an epilogue to the fabulously successful Remain In Light, the album Byrne and Eno finally pitched up with displays all the paradoxical charm and contradictory quirks of genuinely innovative work.
Much was made at the time of Byrne and Eno's use of material from identifiable sources, such as evangelist Paul Morton, The Temple Hall Star Singers and Dunya Yusin, on some tracks. In retrospect, however, it's the unidentified voices seeping in from the haunted boundaries of American talk radio that capture our attention and that now seem to speak to us about another, still uncharted world.