There was a backlash against Laurie Anderson in "serious" musical and artistic circles after the completely unexpected mainstream commercial success of her debut album, Big Science. (The eight-plus-minute single "O Superman" was a chart hit in England, unbelievably enough.) A fair listen to Big Science leaves the impression that jealousy must have been at the root of the reception because Big Science is in no way a commercial sellout. A thoughtful and often hilariously funny collection of songs from Anderson's work in progress, United States I-IV, Big Science works both as a preview of the larger work and on its own merits. Opening with the hypnotic art rock of "From the Air," in which an airline pilot casually mentions that he's a caveman to a cyclical melody played in unison by a three-part reeds section, and the strangely beautiful title track, which must feature the most deadpan yodeling ever, the album dispenses witty one-liners, perceptive social commentary (the subtext of the album concerns Anderson's own suburban upbringing, which she views with more of a bemused fondness than the tiresome irony that many brought to the subject), and a surprisingly impressive sense of melody for someone who was until recently a strictly visual artist. For example, the marimba and handclap-led closer, "It Tango," is downright pretty in the way the minimalistic tune interacts with Anderson's voice, which is softer and more intimate (almost sexy, in a downtown-cool sort of way) than on the rest of the album. Not everything works -- "Walking and Falling" is negligible, and the way Rufus Harley's bagpipes intentionally clash with Anderson's harsh, nasal singing and mannered phrasing in "Sweaters" will annoy those listeners who can't take either Yoko Ono or Meredith Monk -- but Big Science is a landmark release in the New York art scene of the '80s, and quite possibly the best art rock album of the decade.
Big Science Review
by Stewart Mason