Mister Heartbreak :
the second album by Laurie Anderson — or, as pop music fans often seem to see it in the narrative of any artist, the “what now?” album.
OK, so “O Superman” had made its mark, and United States had finished its run with Big Science in its wake. By this time, Laurie was an international icon of sorts, someone stylish and keen who represented aspects of both the pop world and the art world. One look at the musicians featured on Mister Heartbreak, in fact, and it becomes clear she had deliberately burst out of the bubble inside of which Big Science was assembled.
The Mister Heartbreak “band” consists of bassist Bill Laswell and guitarist Adrian Belew, both seasoned players of genre-blending art rock. The guest roster takes it further, including Anton Fier, Nile Rodgers, Peter Gabriel, and even William S. Burroughs, who takes over her speaking role on album closer “Sharkey’s Night.” Of her previous stable of U.S./B.S. musicians, only drummer David Van Tieghem makes a repeat appearance. Each of these players’ contributions (along with several others’) are inextricable from the resulting record, which nevertheless could not be anything but a Laurie Anderson record, not even for one second.
It is fair to say that the mood lightens here; there is less explicit comedy than before, but hand in hand as it is with her, there is also less overhanging dread. Yet she continues to explore The Grey Area. The stories she tells and songs she sings are about missed connections, mistranslations, and mystery. And if the accompaniment on Big Science is stark, with a tonal range from eerie to ethereal, the music here is relatively full, ranging instead from dreamy to ecstatic. Another switch is in the rhythmic focus: Big Science ticks along, with fits of percussive expressionism; Mister Heartbreak is composed of liquid grooves.
The transition is so striking, it’s easy to forget that three of the seven songs on this LP, as well, originate from the material in United States. One quality they have in common with each other and not other songs from the same pool: highly irregular beat counts that magically translate into naturally rhythmic music. Notably, “Blue Lagoon” is based on an ostinato with a signature of 27/8, grouped into three bars of 7 and one of 6, or possibly even 4-3-4-3-3-4-2-4. (That’s a nod to my fellow musician heads — some of you must be out there. Forgive me if I lost anyone for a second. Either way, think of it as a code, open to subjective interpretations.)
In the next post, we’ll hear the song that, for my mother and me, started it all: “Sharkey’s Day.”