By Casey Melnick
In this week’s review, fate has us discussing Laurie Anderson’s debut album Big Science. Released in 1982, this avant-garde album is considered one of the best 1980s albums by critics. Self-produced along with the help of producer Roma Baran, this record utilizes a vast collection of techniques ranging from electronic laden art-pop to anxiety-inducing spoken-word lyrics. Does Big Science’s eccentricity still feel fresh nearly forty years later or is it best left in the 1980s? Check it out.
- “From the Air”
- “Big Science”
- “Walking & Falling”
- “Born, Never Asked”
- “O Superman”
- “Example #22”
- “Let X=X”
- “It Tango”
- “Walk the Dog”
Laurie Anderson’s Big Science is a fascinating affair. Harrowing yet oddly engrossing, this album fully embraces the avant-garde while still maintaining a certain level of accessibility not often found in the art-pop genre. Prescient songwriting combines with weird musical compositions to create an experience that is a record of its own time.
In many ways, “From the Air,” perfectly exemplifies the Big Science experience. It opens with a haunting vocal sampling cooing in the background. A slightly out-of-tune saxophone dances along with a simple drum beat. Offsetting the groove, a strangely calm Anderson welcomes us to the ride with spoken words; “Good evening/This is your Captain/We are about to attempt a crash landing.” This opening track previews the weirdness that is to follow and as we process this crash landing it’s hard to not pay attention.
In the titular track, Anderson showcases her singing chops as she interlaces a beautiful vocal melody with witty lyrics and various one-liners. All of this is juxtaposed against ethereal instrumentation that reminds of airy church hymns. This song also features perhaps the most nonchalant yodeling to be found in music.
Not all tracks in this experience, however, completely hit the mark. The weak point to be found in this project starts with the subsequent two tracks. “Sweaters” is a song that at its best borders on the abrasive and while the concept of the song is sound, the sound proves to be unpleasant. Screeching bagpipe instrumentation used to signify a frustrated lover makes the song hard to listen to outside the framework of the album.
It would be a stretch to call “Walking & Falling” a song. With vague lyrics ostensibly about the redundancies of falling in and out of love, this track has little music to speak of other than a nondescript ambiance in the background. If you are having trouble sleeping at night try putting on this track. Deep sleep is assured.
The album experience and instrumental charm improve with “Born, Never Asked.” This highlight features minimal songwriting and instead focuses on a vibrant arrangement. Anderson once again utilizes spoken words to drive home levity. “You were born/And so you’re free/So happy birthday.” The listener is subject to a musical rebirth as a clapping rhythm combines with a sustained synth before exploding into a lush string arrangement. This violin beautifully weaves in and out of a heartbeat-esque rhythm and creates a satisfying interplay that closes out the remainder of the song.
“O Superman” is possibly the most accessible track on the album despite being upwards of eight minutes. The lone single of this project, this minimalistic song is built around a loop of Anderson saying “ha.” This monotonous spoken word motif is accompanied by politically oozing lyrics that are processed through a vocoder. “O Superman/O Judge/ O Mom and Dad” drones Anderson in reference to the United State’s assumed role as a global superpower, arbiter of justice, and guardian of the world. The majority of the song is framed around a conversation on a simulated answering machine as if to signify the one-sided will of US military intervention. Airplane references, Greek literature, and even shades of Taoism are to be found in this abstract message. The song erupts into a synth, sax, and bird smorgasbord as it concludes, bestowing the listener a cacophony that is analogous to a roaring jet engine traversing the unreachable horizon.
The avant-garde is turned up a few notches in the track “Example 22.” In what can be described as a tropical fever dream, Anderson channels her inner bossa nova with a bouncy sax and vivacious bongos that wouldn’t seem out of place in Mario Sunshine’s Isle Delfino. Between her German lyrics and high-pitched vocal delivery, this track is Anderson showcasing her peculiar brilliance.
“Let X=X and “It Tango” are the two closing sister tracks that share the same clapping and marimba rhythm section. The former is a pretty cut that leans heavily on synths and vocoder spoken words. These elements when combined with the looping beat draw forth a sense of foreboding apprehension that beckons to be quelled. Anderson robotically delivers “I, I feel, feel like, I am in a burning building, and I gotta go” as jazzy horns bleed directly into “It Tango.” In the closer, Anderson ditches the vocoder in favor of a mellifluous delivery that subsides any anxiety that was instilled from before. Low key but charming, this anaphora heavy finale serves as our natural comedown machine in an otherwise artificial experience.
Although not technically part of the 1982 release, “Walk the Dog” ( originally a B-side to “O Superman” ) subsequently has been included in Big Science reissues and thus it deserves a mention. This psychedelic track is the most avant-garde of the bunch. Similar to “Example 22,” this song showcases pitch-shifted vocal deliveries and upbeat instrumentals. Anderson’s lyrics read like a fervent stream of consciousness. This track is a fun, manic journey as we peer into a dithering mind peaking on euphoria.
Big Science is a successful foray into the avant-garde world. With its whimsical arrangements and timeless lyrics, this listening journey is every bit of an effort. Laurie Anderson’s debut album captures a mystique that allows it to remain prescient even today. Navigating a path that intertwines the captivating and the bizarre, Big Science resolutely deserves a listen before time runs out. “This is the time. And this is the record of the time.”
In 10 words- Spoken words and machine-heavy instrumentals channel anxiety and wonder.
Bops- From the Air, Big Science, Example #22, Walk the Dog
Flops- Sweaters, Walking & Falling
Score: 8/10 electronic arms
Editor’s Note: Lyrics pulled from https://genius.com/