Laurie Anderson is the most compelling performer from New York City's bohemian art scene to land a recording contract since Patti Smith signed with Arista some six years ago. Big Science, Anderson's eerie aural collage of a debut album, communicates much, though by no means all, of her astonishing intensity.
Most of the pieces on Big Science come from Anderson's grand, cyclic work-in-progress, United States I-IV, a multimedia performance extravaganza that mixes slides, sound effects, recitation and minimalist rock music in an apocalyptic conception of America's technological might.
Performed live, United States I-IV is a sensory mind-funk of sounds and images that constantly pun off each other in funny and frightening ways. Anderson's best visual creations the faces of wall sockets photographed to resemble howling stone monsters, video games that illustrate nuclear warfind ultimate horror, as well as a cold kind of beauty, in ultimate banality. And so does her music, which combines electronic sound effects, minimalist chants and aphoristic pop poetry heavily laced with techno-jargon.
Recorded in her home studio and coproduced with Roma Baran, Big Science is largely a one-woman show with Anderson handling most of the electronics, Farfisa organ, violin and some percussion. But the most important instrument on the LP is the Vocoder, which Anderson uses to electronically alter her voice into different robotic timbres.
Big Science, of course, can't provide the multidimensional, operatic excitement of one of Anderson's performances. But even by itself, the music and recitation packs plenty of power. The pieces that work the best are those that make the biggest concessions to pop form, like "O Superman" (a freak English hit last year). Dedicated to French operatic composer Jules Massenet, who titillated the public in the nineteenth century with his religio-erotic tear jerkers, "O Superman" invokes authority figures like "Superman" and "mom and dad" (Big Brother and his extended family?) to satirize society's romance with the technological power that may well destroy it.
Anderson's fascination with technological nightmare is wittily drawn out in the title cut, which links "hallelujahs" and "yodellayheehoos" in a mock Gregorian chant. Alternately ominous and amusing, "Big Science" chillingly conjures the new American wilderness of shopping malls, freeways and sports complexes, where individuals feel reduced to computer numbers and the common language is a debased, back-slapping slang. "From the Air" envisions the planet as an aircraft run by a malfunctioning automatic pilot, with a fiendishly humorous William Burroughs-like scenario: on the way to a crash landing, the captain announces he's a cave man and tells the passengers to cover their eyes and jump out.
But Big Science isn't all mordant apocalyptic quipping. "Sweaters" (a Tibetan-style lament for voice, bagpipes and drums), "Let X = X" and "It Tango" are quirkier, more human pieces. "Your eyes/It's a day's work just looking into them," is a magically surreal description of wordless, loving exchange. And "Walking and Falling" with its statement "You're walking, and you don't realize it, but you're always falling," repeated and modified in Anderson's cool, level delivery brings love, death and the principle of gravity into a single, haunting equation. Even without visual aids, Laurie Anderson manages to communicate three ideas at once. (RS 371)