Lead singer of eccentric indie band gets together with dance-music guy to collaborate on a concept album about an icon of 1980s excess.
Heard that one anywhere else lately? David Byrne and Norman Cook certainly have. The transatlantic acclaim that greeted Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip when they recorded an electronic opera based on the life of coked-up motor tycoon John DeLorean clearly didn't go unnoticed in the homes of the former Talking Head and the ex-Housemartin.
Neon Neon's Stainless Style is, it's reasonable to assume, one of the main blueprints for Here Lies Love, which recounts the fascistic fairy-tale of Imelda Marcos, from her typhoon-troubled childhood in the Philippines through her youth as a beauty queen to her imperial phase as the First Lady to dictator Ferdinand Marcos (and, famously, the owner of 3,000 pairs of shoes) to the couple's dramatic downfall at the giant foam hands of the People Power movement. The album's title, incidentally, references the words Marcos tells interviewers she wants engraved on her headstone.
Of course, another somewhat less cool antecedent than Neon Neon is Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita, with the Marcoses substituted for the Perons, and the frog-faced Lord's overblown faux-operatic arias replaced by Latin grooves, shuffling maracas, samba-shaped piano motifs and muffled mariachi brass.
The narrative of Here Lies Love – stretched, somewhat unnecessarily, across the length of a double album – is pushed along by a parade of (mostly female) guest vocalists in the Julie Covington/Madonna role. The majority of these star turns, among them Roisin Murphy, Tori Amos, Martha Wainwright and Natalie Merchant, are quite charming. Some, notably the Labelle-style roar of Sharon Jones, are startling.
Just one – I'm thinking of Steve Earle, unquestionably the most irritating character in The Wire, even including Ziggy and Templeton – is unlistenable. The most inspired choice, though, is the cruelly underexposed Florence Welch, whose own poignant riches-to-even-greater-riches trajectory so accurately mirrors that of Imelda Marcos herself.