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This is a review of the recently released remastered edition. It contains the same tracks as the original except for a slightly different cover, a booklet containing extra photos and notes from Laurie Anderson and two bonus tracks: an alternate version of 'O Superman' and 'Walk the Dog', which also featured on the United States box-set and in earlier stage performances. 'Walk the Dog' was the B-Side of the original "O Superman" single. There is also a video clip for 'O Superman' included in the package.
~~~ Influences and Historical Setting ~~~
This album is mostly derived from Anderson's four-hour one-woman stage presentation 'United States I - IV'. Here we are talking about the United States of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Carter and Reagan era. These were released as a box set of live recordings some years after 'Big Science'. They exhibit themes that reflect a technologically advanced society where the common good is sacrificed for individuality. These songs are about consumerism, power and politics - a society that is essentially maintained through militaristic power and other hidden forces. But there is also an emotional subtext to the music that leaves room for elements of humour and a longing for childhood.
Anderson's electronic music can be seen against the backdrop of electronic synthesiser pop music that was becoming prevalent in the charts at the time. A comparison might be made with Kraftwerk, but stronger links can be made with the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Philip Glass.
~~~ Instrumentation ~~~
Although the album contains plenty of synthesiser and innovative electronic sampling there is also a fascinating array of instrumentation that provides the background melody and rhythm for many of the songs. As well as more traditional instruments such as drums, saxophone and bass, you will also hear a glass harmonica, bagpipes and electronic violin. The diverse range of percussion effects include glass bottles, telephone rings, rudimentary hand claps, sticks and various clicking noises. Probably what's most fascinating about the album is the way Laurie uses her voice. In most of these songs Laurie doesn't really sing but speaks the lyrics in a way that is both captivating and hypnotic. She uses her voice like an instrument. The voice is electronically processed to create minimalist layers of sound and spoken words and phrases are skilfully poised and delivered to produce subtle changes in rhythm and syntax.
~~~ O Superman ~~~
Anderson had no intention of making it in the pop charts with this album. The album came about accidentally and was launched after the most famous track from the album, 'O Superman' reached number two in UK Singles Charts in 1981 - probably the only minimalist avant-garde piece of music ever to make the top five. It's success along with the album, can be put down to John Peel who regularly began playing the track on his radio show in the early 1980s. O Superman is a war song, about weapons of mass destruction - of the nuclear variety. The song also seems to be connected to the Iran hostage crisis - a failed U.S. military operation to rescue American diplomats held in Iran which took place in 1979-80. It consists of a central loop of someone uttering what sounds like a Buddhist chant (oh, oh, oh. oh...). The hypnotic effect is further enhanced by Laurie's overlaid dialogue spoken through a vocoder and accompanied by an array of synthesiser effects. The central idea is taken from French composer Massenet's 1885 hymn the aria "O Souverain, o juge, o père" (O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father) from the opera Le Cid. It also contains lyrics derived from Tao Te Ching: "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". Understandably not everyone liked it. At 8 minutes and 21 seconds long it irritated DJs up and down the country (except Mr Peel) who were forced to play it when it entered the top twenty.
~~~ Other Tracks ~~~
Apart from 'O Superman', the other outstanding tracks on this album are the title track 'Big Science' along with "Walking & Falling" and 'Born, Never Asked' . These songs possess what Andy Gill of NME described as "a dream-like, subconscious quality which helps them work at deeper, secret levels of the psyche". The second track 'Big Science' is slow and melodic electronic sound with percussion accompaniment of electronic tom-toms and tympani. At first it seems to be a commentary about alienation in newly developed bland American suburban landscapes referred to as "Golden cities, Golden towns" full of shopping malls and freeways. But in the warm tones of Laurie's voice one can almost detect a poignant love for place and home.
"Walking & Falling" is both serene and quirky. We hear Anderson's soothing warm voice and delicate pronunciation against minimalist background of electronic synthesiser. The vocals and lyrics possess a strange hallucinatory beauty that lead you to an unexpected conclusion. It's the sort of track that wouldn't be out of place on one of those self-hypnosis CDs. It has a beautiful simplicity that also hides the subtle humour that dwells beneath the surface of many of these compositions. 'Born, Never Asked' is another beautiful uplifting piece of music. It starts off with just Laurie's soothing vocals citing surreal lyrics and then slowly adds in an instrumental mix of violin, marimba and electro percussion.
Some of the other tracks on the album border on experimental jazz and have a harder edge. The hypnotic opening track 'From the Air' incorporates funky jazz elements with spoken lyrics and a background synthesiser. It's one of the tracks on the album that rolls along at a fairly fast tempo. It's heavy going at first but kind of grows on you after a few listens. The lyrics seem to describe the preparation on board a plane about to crash land. Given the context of the album as a whole, in some ways this track eerily seems to anticipate 9/11.
The short third track 'Sweaters' is definitely torture. It involves Rufus Harley on bagpipes in a drawn out routine that will challenge the sensibilities of even the most adherent admirers of experimental avant-garde music. For me it is this track that prevents this album from being an all time classic. I don't know how Laurie and her studio colleagues could expect anyone to gain pleasure from listening to this. And the lyrics: ""I no longer love your eyes, I no longer love the colour of your sweaters." It's awful. If you try scratching your nails across a blackboard it will sound better. Fortunately the track doesn't last too long.
Example #22 is another quirky number but more accessible. It combines violin with whistling, woodwind and accordion. Lots of experimental stuff going on here including words being spoken backwards. Although I appreciate the composition I find it difficult to derive an pleasure from listening to this track.
The last two tracks on the original album release "Let x=x" with its exotic trombone finale and "It Tango" are further experiments in percussion combining marimba playing, trombone and all accompanied by abstract lyrics. Of the two, I prefer "Let x=x" that manages to retain the dream like quality and the pacifying vocal similar to that used in 'O Superman'.
~~~ Conclusion ~~~
Although some of the tracks in this collection are hard going at times you have to judge it in the context of what it is: a collection of songs from a four-hour one-woman stage presentation. Personally I prefer the more melodic minimalist synthesiser tracks dominated by Laurie's warm vocals rather than the harder edged experimental jazz-like numbers. However, in terms of innovation and creative diversity you can't fault this album. Those that dislike the album would be wrong to call it pretentious. Laurie Anderson was not trying to be different when this album was produced. She never even intended to produce an album in the first place. The album for me is still prevalent, it was recorded over 25 years ago, but it still sounds like the future. Although the album might not be an all time classic, 'O Superman' remains one of the great unexpected moments in pop history. In some ways Big Science anticipates the techno, electronic and heavily sampled dance music that was to dominate the 1990s onwards. Overall 'Big Science' is a refreshing example of original creative minimalist music with themes that resonate just as deeply today.
Performers and instruments
Laurie Anderson, vocals, vocoder, Farfisa, OBXa, electronics, violins, keyboards; Roma Baran, Farfisa bass, glass harmonica, accordion; Bill Obrecht, alto sax; Peter Gordon, clarinet sax, tenor sax; David Van Tieghem, drums, RotoToms, tympani, marimba; Perry Hoberman, bottles, flute, sax, piccolo; Rufus Harley, bagpipes; Chuck Fisher, alto sax, tenor sax; Richard Cohen, clarinets, bassoon, bari sax; George Lewis, trombones
1. From the Air -- 4:29
2. Big Science -- 6:14
3. Sweaters -- 2:18
4. Walking & Falling -- 2:10
5. Born, Never Asked -- 4:56
6. O Superman -- 8:21
7. Example #22 -- 2:59
8. Let X=X -- 3:51
9. It Tango -- 3:01
Total time 38:58
Priced £11.98 at Amazon and hmv.co.uk
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 From The Air
2 Big Science
4 Walking And Falling
5 Born Never Asked
6 O Superman (For Massenet)
7 Example 22
8 Let X=X
9 It Tango