1982; r: 2007
’m proud to plead ignorance on Big Science and Laurie Anderson’s career in general. If I’d heard the album before it was reissued, I think I would’ve had a harder time realizing it could’ve been made yesterday.
Which isn’t to say that it’s timeless. Nothing says dated like “O Superman,” an eight-minute vocoder chorale so novel that the British public sent it to #2 on the pop charts and then voted it one of the country’s least favorite singles later that year. Like Crazy Frog, only she made it with an NEA grant.
It’s not substantial enough to call “O Superman” a protest song, but it is, and that helps. Big Science is an album romanced by technology: fear of it, passion for it, amusement with it. Big science as we know it in 2007 is basically another victim of politics. The intoxication of possibility is subsiding, our great knowledge birthed an iPhone, astronauts are getting drunk in space because they’re so fucking depressed, and we’re waking up to something worse than routine: the most disastrous presidency in decades, (more) war, guys on television turning new crimsons over the crashing stock market. Technology as a metaphor is receding back into sci-fi terms: an illusory solution that only alienates us. A friend recently commented on the Daft Punk/Kanye match: “That guy must be taking the future intravenously,” forgetting that Daft Punk’s last album sucked and Kanye chose to sample a song of theirs from ten years ago, when robots were still our cool new friends. Robots are not our cool new friends anymore.
So who are? The pilot in from “From the Air” goofs as he narrates a plane crash: “Your captain says put your head on your knees / Captain says put your hands on your head,” later begging for a laugh track with the puppy dog assertion “this is gonna be some day.” This is contemporary. Six years after “the thing,” terror feels like a banality, but it’s a weird banality to deal with. The pilot’s only worried when he says, “We’re going down,” and realizes it’s not a movie. And even though the song is meditative, off kilter art-pop with a discordant sax duet, she fills the moment with swelling synth strings—a movie.
A few minutes later, under the quiet hand-drum patter and a long drone of the title track, she remarks, “You know, I think we should put mountains here / Otherwise, what are all the characters going to fall off of?” The pilots of the metaphorical planes are cartoonists, I guess. On “O Superman,” Anderson contorts a line from the Tao Te Ching to read "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.” “Mom” is an increasingly comforting notion—who believes in utopia anymore? People settle for functioning families—but Anderson means mother country, more a threat than an invitation.
Lyrics aside—like I said, it is a protest record—Big Science’s embrace of electronics with acoustics sounds more contemporary than ever. Bands like Animal Collective and Black Dice have gone to great lengths to show you how you can use synthesizers and sequencers and still act like cavemen (and that minimalist composers in the ’60s were probably trying to do just that). “Example #22” is explicit about the connection, as primitive as post-punk treeclimbers like the Slits or the Raincoats, but still making room for samples of people talking backwards. Here, Anderson uses the latest technology for an old impulse: yelling.
The predominant mode here is playful. But it’s disaffected, too—she’s often in total deadpan, vocoder or not—and it’s sometimes hilarious and, surprisingly, domestic. It’s meditative. It’s pretty much everything could be in our own time to stay even. On “Let X=X,” over stock drumming to herald “African sunrise”—a new day!—she says “I met this guy, and he looked like might have been a hat check clerk at an ice rink / Which, in fact, he turned out to be. And I said: Oh boy. Right again. Let X=X.” So, the faux-naif wins again. I guess my question is, now more than ever, what’s wrong with that?