Happiness, Barbican, London

9/11, fast food and the odd fancy gadget
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The Independent Culture

Promising an evening of pleasure is always a risky business, but then, just because a show is called Happiness doesn't mean that for its 90 minutes duration all misery will evaporate.

Promising an evening of pleasure is always a risky business, but then, just because a show is called Happiness doesn't mean that for its 90 minutes duration all misery will evaporate.

Oh, if only, one can almost hear Laurie Anderson sigh, as she launches into a story about her temporary job at a Manhattan branch of McDonald's. (As an artist with a questioning attitude to all power structures – including the multinational record label that releases her CDs – she had wanted to see how mass production works.) "It was the first time I was able to give someone what they wanted." It is a disarming admission, but it's typical of the extraordinary mixture of pride and pathos with which Happiness steers its course. For those dazzled by Anderson's multimedia extravaganzas and then disturbed by the lead whale of Songs and Stories for Moby Dick, a show that attempted to re-tell Melville's classic, Happiness represents a much more self-assured return for the multimedia artist. Its beauty lies in its utter simplicity; it's just Anderson, an electronic violin and a few MIDI gadgets (not the armada that accompanied Moby Dick three years ago).

Sure, plenty has happened between then and now – 9/11 chief amongst them – but Anderson's new simplicity is not unlinked. Within days of 11 September, Anderson, this time with a small pick-up band, filled London's Royal Festival Hall to capacity; it was an occasion when one felt that her Eighties hit, "O Superman" (key lines: "Here come the planes – they're American planes – made in America") really mattered. Anderson, whose perennial theme has been one that explores the impact of technology on humanity, spoke movingly on the aftermath of the disaster. Tanks, soldiers and the FBI live outside her downtown New York apartment. There are surveillance cameras everywhere.

It's beginning to sound like one of the dark scenarios of United States I-IV or Bright Red, an album released after (and concerning) the first Gulf War.

"I'm thinking," she says, in her trademark singsong voice, with its trademark slow pace, "what happened to this place?" There is no answer. Happiness is a show built around stories – and Anderson has always been a consummate storyteller. The music, if anything, is slight. Various synth washes and pattering beats, very reminiscent of her most recent album, Life on a String (indeed, the only song of the night, "One Beautiful Evening", is culled from this). One or two gadgets – an electronic smile and a pair of specs with powerful contact mikes – make an appearance, but perhaps the most arresting moment is when she drops into a silence. It lasts probably only one minute, but its effect is far stronger.

It's not so much a John Cage moment, as we consider the ambient sounds around us, so much as a gauntlet thrown down.

All of which presumes a challenge. But what? Perhaps it's that we should listen to our own stories, and the personal agency we impute. Anderson's monologues may be devastatingly funny – and with accounts of life on an Amish farm, or on the iconography of the crucifixion ("What if Christ had died by stoning?"), rarely has she been on better form or so relaxed. But there are morals here, and the moral of Happiness, at least, is that desperation is no excuse for culpability.

'Happiness': Barbican Theatre, London EC2 (0845 120 7514), tonight at 7.45pm

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