A Ten Song Primer On The Career Of Electronic Pioneer And Spoken Word Artist Laurie Anderson

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 9, 2024

Laurie Anderson is a rare kind of artist, one who works hard to make her art without being contained by it. In the 1980s it seemed implausible that a spiky-haired, violin-playing, post-punk spoken word performance artist with unmistakably calm vocal register would carve out a place for herself on the charts, but not only did she manage that feat, she made an entire career out of it, paving the way for contemporary musicians like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Jenny Hval who share Anderson’s penchants for bold experimentalism.

At the center of Anderson’s work is her role as a storyteller. She says stories were a huge part of her life growing up and that she originally started telling stories to appease her younger sister who always had trouble sleeping. “I’d love to climb to the top of a tree and read a book,” she said. “I remember so many worlds opening up that way.”

Anderson sees her transition from sculptor, to building her own instruments, to filmmaker, to musician as a natural progression of her art practice. In fact, her multidisciplinary approach to art helps to make sense of her career as a musician, as her music has often straddled the lines between the avant-garde and pop. Across seven albums the now seventy-year-old has collaborated with figures as diverse as Nile Rodgers, Adrian Belew, Bill Laswell, William S. Burroughs, John Zorn, and her late husband Lou Reed.

Her latest collaborator is the Kronos Quartet, and together they released Landfall, a project three years in the making, last week. Between the new album and the fact that Anderson also published a career retrospective book earlier this month entitled All The Things I Lost In The Flood, there really is no better time to look back at the span of her career, here are ten songs that serve as a primer for Anderon’s expansive, stunning career.

“O Superman” (1981)

The song that started it all. There no unlikelier hit than “O Superman:” A nearly eight and a half minute long song, with a vocodered-spoken word performance set to the beat of the repeated syllable “ha,” drawing influence from minimalism and opera, while referencing the Tao Te Ching and Heterdotus’ Histories, “O Superman” is a dense, intertextual piece of music but had a secret weapon — a co-sign from legendary DJ John Peel. The song did incredibly well in the UK, reaching the No. 2 spot on the charts and basically turned Anderson from an unknown New York-based avant-garde musician into a global pop phenomenon with a seven record deal at Warner Brothers. Nearing its fortieth year, the song still sounds just as out of place on the radio today as it did in 1981, suggesting Anderson was more than just a few decades ahead of her time.

“From The Air” (1982)

Off her major-label debut album, Big Science, “From The Air” continues on the path Anderson set out on with “O Superman,” but with a knottier, circular rhythm punctuated by a looped vocal and saxophone part. Despite the major label involvement, you won’t find Anderson making any concessions here, if anything she leaned into her idiosyncrasies rather than worked to soften them and make them more palatable to a wider audience.

“Excellent Birds” (1984)

From her sophomore album, Mister Heartbreak, “Excellent Birds” is a song Anderson co-wrote with Peter Gabriel. As one of Anderson’s first collaborations, it’s a rather smooth amalgamation of both artists’ sounds, though they apparently couldn’t quite agree on how it should be mixed, which is why a slightly different version later appears on Gabriel’s 1986 album So, and a third version is used in the music video for the song. There’s a call and response between Gabriel’s sung and Anderson’s spoken vocal, which creates a tension while also alluding to the cut-up lyric technique Anderson would borrow from poet William S. Burroughs. The melody itself seems to be Gabriel’s influence, as Anderson’s own work at that time resisted such a straightforward approach to songwriting, but the lyrics, in all of their cut up, opaque characteristics bear the telltale signs of Anderson’s work.

“Language Is A Virus” (1986)

Like the cut-up technique of “Excellent Birds,” “Language Is A Virus” also bears the influence of poet William S. Burroughs. The song’s title is taken from a concept in the Burroughs novel The Ticket That Exploded, which speaks to the power and influence language has over our lives and the way it shapes our thinking. The song is produced by disco-heavyweight Nile Rodgers, who by this point had also produced records for Madonna, Duran Duran, David Bowie and Diana Ross, and whose enlistment here helps provide the song with its own infectiousness.

“The Dream Before” (1989)

Unlike the maximal avant pop of her first three studio albums, the material on Strange Angels marked a turn in Anderson’s career where she started stripping all that artifice away for songs that were markedly more “musical” in their approach. None display this newfound vulnerability in her songwriting than “The Dream Before.” As with her previous work, the song’s movement is determined by its narrative, but never has so much weight of that movement been on Anderson’s voice alone.

“In Our Sleep” (1994)

“In Our Sleep” is one of the few songs in Anderson’s oeuvre which features her late husband Lou Reed (though they didn’t actually marry until 2008). The couple met in 1992, so this recording, produced by Brian Eno, finds them at an early stage in their relationship, yet willing to bare it all. A buzzing guitar and funky bassline provide the “rock” backbone here, ushering Anderson and Reed to sing their shared repeated line “In our sleep / As we speak / Listen to the drums beat / In our sleep.” Spacey synths and… bagpipes… join in the fray but mostly for the sake of atmosphere and do so without derailing the close intimacy the couple establish.

“The End Of The World” (1995)

Never one for following the rules, Anderson’s seventh and final album for Warner was an album that was kind of live, kind of not. Consisting of Anderson’s live performance of readings from her book Stories From The Nerve Bible, with additional recordings done in studio, The Ugly One With The Jewels was a return to Anderson putting her stories first, with the added musicality she’d begin to hone on Strange Angels. Consisting of just Anderson’s voice and finger-picked violin strings, “The End Of The World” puts Anderson’s talents as a spoken word artist on full display. What starts as a story about her grandmother bends and twists into something completely different, as if her violin strings were coaxing the narrative into surreality.

“Dark Angel” (2001)

The arrangement, courtesy of Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, gives “Dark Angel” a lush quality to it, as if it were from a lost ’50s musical, but they also add a woozy, nauseous feel. Such a grandoise arrangement suggests the song was worked on and laboured over in the studio for quite some time, yet Anderson’s vocal feels off the cuff and improvised, as if it were bounding about a soundstage while the accompaniment chases it to keep up. It’s clever and playful in all the ways Anderson’s music had been in the early eighties, but this time with a more timeless flair.

“My Right Eye” (2010)

With the release of 2010’s Homeland, it seemed as though Anderson was finally comfortable with allowing herself to plumb the darkness without having to counter that darkness with some lighthearted arrangements or a catchy, funky beat. You can hear on songs like “My Right Eye” how her craft has been sharpened with exacting precision. There’s a direct quality here that was anticipated by earlier works like Strange Angels and Bright Red, that emphasizes her calm yet expressive vocal while also embellishing the song melodically with strings and minimal percussion. It feels honest and still as uncompromising as ever.

“A Story About A Story” (2015)

“A Story About A Story” is taken from the soundtrack/score to her film Heart Of A Dog, a musing on life, love and death through the story of her late dog, Lolabelle. An ambient synth line faintly glimmers in the background as Anderson tells her story about a story. It’s as personal as Anderson gets in her work, but not without a few twists and turns. While the music remains austere, Anderson builds the track up with narrative layers, before collapsing them in on each other with a gut-punch of an ending.

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