Think you're having a rough decade? Consider Laurie Anderson's first recording of the '90s. Paradoxically, this performance artist's previous album (Strange Angels, 1989) was among her most whimsical, not to mention a huge conceptual breakthrough: Laurie sings! Bright Red finds her reverting to theatrically inflected spoken observations over largely static harmonic backdrops, and its subject matter is almost unrelievedly gloomy.
But that's not bad news. With the help of Brian Eno's spare production, these compositions rivet the listener's attention. Anderson's voice emerges from digital blackness, often accompanied only by sinuous percussion. Her narratives in first or second person, rarely embracing "we" take on tragic force. She indulges in an occasional warble, but most of Bright Red is too grim to sing about.
While Anderson's live work has grown increasingly political, on this album she emphasizes emotional burnout. The AIDS metaphor of "Love Among the Sailors" is an exception, but it shares the album's theme of loss. Indeed, certain motifs pop up consistently drowning, sleep and dreaming, former lovers.
There's a touch of formal gimmickry: Anderson alternates every other word or two of the title track with Arto Lindsay. She downshifts her voice as the "male" narrator of "The Puppet Motel" and does an amazing impression of Lou Reed on "In Our Sleep"... oops, that actually is Lou, who also contributes drone guitar. That the compositions don't need the techno tricks demonstrates Anderson's depth.
Bright Red's slyest trick may be the passages of echoey cooing over sustained keyboard tones; Anderson no doubt hopes to snare a few people who think they've picked up a new Enya release. But the closest she comes to New Age thumb-sucking are the occasional slivers of hope she offers. Anderson may be awash in the bright red spilled by friends and foes, but she has survived. (RS 697)