Concept albums about historical figures have always been something of a tricky proposition. Sometimes, they can turn out to be a little obtuse, to the point where longtime fans are surprised to find out that the album was based on anybody. Take Neutral Milk Hotel’s superlatively great album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which, believe it or not, is about Anne Frank. If I hadn’t read that in interviews and reviews in the course of my budding love affair with that record, I would have never known.
Obtuseness is not the issue with former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and formerly ubiquitous dance DJ Fatboy Slim’s tribute to former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love (reportedly the phrase she would like to have as an epitaph). If anything, it’s impossible to miss that the shoe-loving Mrs. Marcos is the subject of this double-disc set, from the unadorned photo of her on the cover to the lengthy biographical book inside to the 22 tracks which very clearly tell her life story up to the point of her and her husband’s 1989 exile from the Philippines.
As a result, this incredibly ambitious project plays more often than not like a Broadway musical soundtrack. The bio-album style of the whole thing (Byrne has even laid out the plot structure here) gives it sort of an Evita feel, and the Broadway feeling is bolstered further by many of Fatboy Slim’s disco-sample arrangements set up the 22 singers showcased on the record (20 of which are female guest vocalists like Sharon Jones, Kate Pierson of the B-52s, Santigold, Tori Amos and Cyndi Lauper; Byrne sings lead on two tracks and Steve Earle takes on one) to belt out their biographical lyrics in a ’70s showtune style.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
It often depends on the singer. Jones (of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) knocks out her track, the opener of the stronger second disc and the only one of the bunch that changes up the style with an R & B/jazz sound. Even then, though, the song wouldn’t sound all that out of place with a couple lyrical changes on “Sesame Street.” Australian singer Sia also does a great job with her track, “Never So Big,” which features the catchiest breakbeat on the whole album. Alice Russell glides into an infectiously catchy chorus on “Men Will Do Anything.”
With those exceptions, however, the rest of the album just seems to kind of blend together into an lull, even though it’s a relatively enjoyable one. Earle’s early track is a nice change of pace from what leads up to it, but settles down into the tone of everything else soon enough. Byrne occasionally will spice up a track with some nice acoustic guitar work, but it simply adds a sheen of making a few songs sound like some of his earlier solo work.
The lyrics come across mostly as text to historical non-fiction novel about Marcos with some poetic language. Much of the language, however, isn’t too poetic at all, and sounds more like, well, lines from a play. For instance, on the song “Pretty Face,” Camille sings that “if a hospital is needed, let a business give its share,” along with several other political talking-point style lines.
That said, the piece is obviously well-researched, and Byrne has done a nice job of tying the whole thing together into a cohesive plot, with callbacks and everything (a late song where Marcos encounters her first childhood boyfriend, now the leader of the opposition, would make a great third-act scene in a play). I admire it. I just don’t know how well it works as a pop music album.
You: Thought it was okay for a listen.