Here Lies Love is a new album by the masterminds David Byrne (of Talking Heads) and Fatboy Slim. It tells the story of two captivating women: Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines, and Estrella Cumpas, the woman who raised her. Marcos was an allegedly corrupt and murderous beauty queen while seated at her threshold of power. Although the disc requires repeated listens because following the story the first time around is close to impossible, it’s truly a stroke of genius. Thanks to guests like Cyndi Lauper, Sharon Jones, and Santigold, the album manages to overcome the somewhat gloomy concept, serving up a smooth blend of disco-infused dance numbers and power ballads.
British songstress Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine) kicks the album off by starting at the end — of Marcos’ life that is. Now 80 years old, Marcos has said for years that her gravestone will read “Here Lies Love.” Welch’s lush, soulful voice wails as the fire-haired beauty summarizes the first lady’s life, from birth until her exile from the Philippines. Another song that sparkles is the standout “Every Drop of Rain.” The song is a sweeping epic about the two women’s lives together as “garage people.” The song shifts back and forth between a melancholy ballad and club anthem, supported by indie vocalists St. Vincent and Candie Payne. The women play off each other like childhood friends as they touch upon how “when you’re poor, it’s like you’re naked.”
A couple of ’80s pop queens make appearances on Love. Cyndi Lauper sweeps in for two phenomenal songs. The first, “Eleven Days,” is lyrically one of the best songs on the album, with a killer hook to accompany it. Lauper laments in her wispy voice that it has been, “Eleven days since the moment we met / Eleven days I will never forget / Eleven diamonds on the ring that he gave / I haven’t seen him … in eleven days.” It really is the epitome of a perfect pop song: It’s sassy and witty, catchy and memorable. She also appears on the final track, “Why Don’t You Love Me?” with Tori Amos (who also hams it up on “You’ll Be Taken Care Of”). Here, Lauper vocally trounces Amos, but then again maybe that was Byrne’s objective: It’s a song between the two main characters after their massive falling out. Kate Pierson (the lead female of The B-52’s) arrives on “The Whole Man” and proves that she can still howl with the best of them. The song sounds like classic Talking Heads, a clear sign of Byrne’s influence here, but not enough to overpower such a talented singer as Pierson.
Two current indie goddesses show up in the second act and walk away with the show. The straw haired Sia commands “So Big,” a song from Cumpas’ perspective about people who hound her about her connections to Marcos. The Aussie second-guesses herself in asking for Marcos’ help when she chants “And in my time of need, could you open your heart? Don’t make me beg, don’t turn away / She always said you’d help some day!” It turns from a lament into a triumphant and thumping track effortlessly. Brooklyn rapper Santigold’s spot on “Please Don’t” seems more like a track off her own album that she lent to Byrne and Slim, a true testament to Byrne’s ability to let his guests take center stage. The song touches upon Marcos’ belief that “if there’s a problem, it’s really better this way / I don’t need the president, I get my little bag and say ‘please don’t.'” This is Byrne’s way of poking fun at the “handbag politics” of the first lady, a sign of her excessive vanity and naivete.
Byrne paints a very one-sided picture of Marcos, only briefly touching upon the falling out between her and Cumpas (in “Order 1081” featuring Natalie Merchant, lovely here). He completely ignores the scandals that surrounded her political life, such as the assassination attempt on her life and the embezzlement charges brought against her (10 of which are still being fought in court). That’s where the album falls flat. The music is gorgeous, packed with tropical sounds and danceable beats. The lyrics, however, frequently sound like they have been lifted from a straight to DVD Disney musical. Herein lies another problem: Does Here Lies Love want to be an album or a musical? Its songs certainly do enough exposition for it to be staged, and Byrne has performed it live four times. He has said in interviews that the album is meant to be the experience of live theater while at a disco, which just begs the question: What is Here Lies Love trying to be? 7 out of 10.