Here Lies Love
I love David Byrne. He’s so smart, he’s so weird, he’s so talented. Only he could have come up with a double disc concept album about the life of Imelda Marcos, juxaposing her life with that of Estrella Cumpas, the woman who helped raise her. Byrne’s inspiration for the project developed as he speculated on the motivational impulses of the hugely rich and powerful. Imelda Marcos became the perfect foil for his exploration of the subject. Taking into consideration Marcos’ penchant for haunting discothèques of the 1970s and ‘80s, Byrne approached producer Norman Cook, aka, Fatboy Slim as a partner in the project, keeping in mind Cook’s ability in creating churning, thumping dance beats.
As Byrne began the writing process he found it useful to employ Imelda Marcos’s own words for his lyrics. The title Here Lies Love is Imelda’s choice of inscriptions for tombstone. As the album unfolds we are introduced to the places and people in Imelda Marcos’ life, including Estrella Cumpas who’s life parallels Imelda’s but from the opposite end of the spectrum as she struggles with poverty.
22 songs cover Imelda from her childhood to the collapse of the Marcos regime. Instead of singing these songs himself Byrne enlists the help of a wide range of female singers to play Imelda or Estrella in different stages of their life. The list of women is stunning: Tori Amos, Martha Wainwright, Nellie McKay, Cyndi Lauper, Kate Pierson, Santigold, Natalie Merchant, Nicole Atkins, Florence Webb, Allison Moorer, Sia, Candie Payne, St. Vincent, Roisin Murphy, Theresa Anderson, Sharon Jones, Camille, Charmaine Clamor, Alice Russell, and Shara Worden.
There are only 2 male vocals on the album – David Byrne takes the lead on “American Troglodyte” and backing vocals throughout. In a bizarre but somehow inspired twist, lefty liberal Steve Earle plays the part of Ferdinand Marcos on “The Perfect Hand” in which the young Senator pursues a very young and beautiful Imelda. There are a number of stand out tracks, especially Sharon Jones on “Dancing Together” in which Imelda justifies her lavish partying as diplomacy. Natalie Merchant is superb on “Order 1081” which addresses President Ferninand Marcos’ infamous proclamation that effectively recast him as Dictator.
Despite its unusual approach Here Lies Love does work as a history lesson, offering insight into one of the more charismatic couples in modern history. The album is full of dropped names of the rich and powerful which underscores the thin line between glittering fame and politics. Byrne could have called this album “Despot in the discothèque” and been both accurate and acerbic.
Byrne also chose to make this record as a song cycle as a statement about the state of “the album” in music. Although you can listen to each cut independent of the others, as a successive group of songs you are given a picture of events and times otherwise missed.