Thursday, April 03, 2008

Album project: Big Science

Laurie Anderson, Big Science (1982): I didn't pay much attention to Big Science when it arrived at the campus radio station, not being a fan of electronic music in general. It wasn't until I was at a friend's place several months later when he put this record on that I noticed Laurie Anderson's warmth and humor that sneaks up on you when you listen to these songs. Not long after, I went out and bought the LP, and found myself playing it often over the next couple of years.

Laurie Anderson at the time was really more of a visual performance artist who used her music as a means to accent her broader artistic ideas. She could also play the violin, and invented something called a tape-bow violin, which used recorded magnetic tape in place of hair on the bow, and a magnetic tape head on the bridge. In the early 80's she began work on a project, United States I-IV, a study of America's love for and dependence on technology. One of the songs for the project, "O Superman", was released as a limited-edition independent single. That single stirred up enough interest that Anderson put together some of the other songs she was working on for United States I-IV, and recorded Big Science. (The entire 4 1/2 hour United States was released in 1984.)

Big Science continues to develop Anderson's theme of technology - notably, how our dependence on our high-tech gadgetry leads us to develop an affection for the machines that they can never return, and how that dependence affects our human relationships. It's hard to convey today the futuristic vision of this record from the standpoint of 25 years ago, especially since so much of the future Anderson describes has arrived. Indeed, much of Big Science seems prophetic, especially in the wake of 9/11, from the deadpan observations of the pilot of a crashing plane in "From The Air" ("You know, I've got a funny feeling I've seen this all before. Why? 'Cause I'm a caveman"), to the airplanes that recur through "O Superman". ("Here come the planes. They're American planes. Made in America.") Yet, if anyone would label Anderson a prophet, she would find it amusing. "I've seen the future", Anderson says in "Let X=X", "and it's a place - about 70 miles east of here."

Anderson's voice is what keeps Big Science interesting. She makes generous use of vocoders and electronic treatments, which were only starting to come into use in the early 80's. Throughout the album, Anderson loops and layers her processed voice to create the unique rhythms she builds her musical ideas upon. Anderson's lead vocals are more spoken than sung, much of it in a pleasant yet unemotional telephone-operator voice that breaks at unexpected moments to offer genuine glimpses of emotion, such as in "O Superman":

'Cause when love is gone, there's always justice
And when justice is gone, there's always force
And when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi Mom!

Anderson backs her observations with an eclectic array of musical instrumentation and electronic noises. Some of the songs are almost musically conventional, while others feature things like a glass harmonica and Anderson's tape-bow violin. She makes imaginative use of all manner of electronic percussion; one surprising influence of Big Science has been as a source for many hip-hop and rap samples.

Big Science earned Anderson a sizable cult following in the US, and even more improbable success in the UK. Legendary BBC DJ John Peel began playing "O Superman" on his show, and sales of the single took off. "O Superman" rose all the way to #2 in the British charts, making it one of the most unlikely pop hits ever.

Anderson has continued her avant-garde career to this day, releasing a number of projects and working with a wide variety of artists from William S. Burroughs and Phillip Glass to Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed, with whom she has been romantically involved since the late 90's. She's never enjoyed anything like the commercial success she earned with Big Science since, although her song "Sharkey's Day" got a bit of airplay, and was later used by Lifetime Television.

It's likely a lot of you have never heard "O Superman", and if you have, you've probably forgotten.