One would think that musicals based on the rags-to-riches life stories of controversial politicians’ wives rest solely in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s wheelhouse. Yet, he now has some competition in the forms of David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) and Fatboy Slim (the DJ best known for his hit “The Rockafeller Skank”). The two recently teamed up to release Here Lies Love, a sprawling pop-rock opera based on the life of Filipino first wife, Imelda Marcos.
The project is imagined as a musical heavily featuring Marcos and Estrella Cumpas, a servant from her childhood who also reappeared at various important points in Imelda’s life. Byrne and Fatboy Slim recruited a gaggle of trendy, fresh female vocalists (and a few trusty veterans like Cyndi Lauper and Tori Amos) to take on the role of Imelda or Estrella in each song. St. Vincent, Florence Welch, Sharon Jones, Santigold, Sia, Nellie McKay, Martha Wainwright, and Shara Worden all make appearances. Male voices are scant, but Byrne himself takes a turn at the mic in “American Troglodyte” and “Seven Years,” and Steve Earle pops up on “A Perfect Hand.”
The epic album starts off with the title track, sung by Welch (of Florence and the Machine). It serves as a great introduction to the album, setting the tone of the music and the story. The track has a solid disco foundation that seeps its way through a good majority of the album, and guides us directly into “Every Drop of Rain,” a bouncy duet between Candie Payne and St. Vincent (as Imelda and Estrella). Despite its apparent sunniness, the lyrics make a stark point about Imelda’s destitute childhood, and the feeling that accompanies poverty in general: “When you’re poor/it’s like you’re naked/and every drop of rain you feel.” It’s a touching duet that establishes the closeness of these two women, just before their paths diverge like two negative magnets.
Like the sweeping Broadway epics penned by Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber, Here Lies Love also features quite a few throwaway tracks. Some that fall in the middle are considerably less memorable than the few that we begin and end with. Certainly, the project is consistently good; it’s just not always consistent in its stubborn catchiness. But, this could be said of almost every album ever made. The benefit of a rock opera or musical is that the album has a distinct story and each song is a chapter. Take one song out and the story doesn’t advance in the same way. Knowing the background of each song is unbelievably beneficial to the listener, and the information is readily available, in detail, on DavidByrne.com. Of course, this also makes the listening experience a much more involved process – an aural journey, perhaps. Besides a few select songs that could act as singles, the project is best ingested as a whole, and with a fully devoted mind. This is ideally how every well-crafted album should be treated, but Here Lies Love almost demands it of its listeners.