Friday, September 30, 2011

The song remains the same

Any accurate review of Laurie Anderson's Delusion (above, at ArtsEmerson, straight from BAM, through this weekend only), could, I think, be read as either a rave or a pan. Because the bottom line is that the performance is precisely - and I mean precisely - what you'd expect. Or rather what you'd remember.

For me, this made it a sweet exercise in nostalgia.  Like a lot of artsy people my age, I listened to Big Science, Anderson's breakthrough album, nonstop in my dorm room in the spring of 1982 - or rather in rotation with albums by people like Brian Eno and David Byrne.  At the time it seemed some new kind of serious artistic consciousness was becoming possible in pop - I remember that "O Superman" was actually on the charts (briefly), and I think it broke the Top 10 in the UK, where, you know, people are smarter than they are here.  I was quite sure that for Anderson, Big Science would only lead to bigger things.

But it turned out that the album wasn't so much a debut as a kind of greatest hits retrospective from the last few years of her career (I eventually saw United States Live, from which it was drawn, a production which proved disappointing); despite a sudden boom in popularity and resources, Anderson would never again equal Big Science.  I lost track of her - I think I last saw her in like 1987 - but she settled into a comfortable niche as a sweet if slightly spooky, post-punk pixie.

And now she's back at ArtsEmerson, and frankly, watching her you'd swear it was still 1982.  Or rather that it's still 1982 for her; the projections and electronics are more sophisticated than they were back in the 80's, but she's still wearing the same white shirt and skinny New-Wave tie (!), the hair is still in little spikes, her articulation is still as drolly clipped as her 'do, and she's still fluttering like a melancholy butterfly through a field of alienated observations and witty questions that never really cohere into a point.

When I was 21, of course, I didn't really need a point; her technique seemed to open up so many possibilities that it alone was enough.  But now, thirty years on, I kind of need a point; her vision is no longer the future - it's the past. And weirdly enough, at first Anderson implies she needs one, too. Delusion opens, in fact, with the sad admission that recently her work ethic has collapsed - and we watch as chalk-boarded plans and ideas collapse before us, too; the internal "donkey and a carrot" mentality that always drove her process has broken down; the donkey no longer cares about the carrot she's dangling before it.

You'd think from this creative crisis that some new, desperate form of inspiration might be in the offing.  But you'd be wrong.  Anderson instead meditates on her creative breakdown in precisely the same way she always has.  Now I won't go into that old saw about doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results, but it does run through your mind while you're watching the possibly-ironically-titled Delusion.  Throwing up your hands in exasperation also occurs to you, particularly when her "male" alter ego takes over (a gambit at least a decade past its fresh date).

But at the same time, I admit a certain nostalgic affection sneaks its way into your heart.  Anderson has become a cliché, it's true, but watching her I began to understand why my parents used to tune in to Lawrence Welk.  The familiarity of her mode of alienation is somehow comforting, and of course she's as witty and amusing as ever.  That minimal diction teasing out those subliminal double entendres, it's still mordantly hilarious.  I realized I still liked her; I just wanted to like her more. I wanted her to really be the artist I once thought she was going to be.

But I'm afraid the old formlessness and lack of discipline are there, too.  Something about the recent death of her mother (and their loveless relationship) is tugging at Anderson - could that milestone be the source of her new ennui? Was her internal donkey really being spurred by Mom rather than some conceptual carrot?  And so at first Delusion sort of circles, in a quizzical fashion, the painful episode of her mother's passing.  But slowly the piece devolves into a ramble through Anderson's personal history instead, punctuated by bursts of grinding, okay-but-not-great techno.  Connections to mother-love keep floating by in one way or another, like drifting satellites; Anderson dreams of giving birth to her dog (and we also see a dog sniffing anxiously at a dying woman); the moon - a classic metaphor for dead love - is dryly rhapsodized as a junkyard for NASA, etc.  But alas, "Mother didn't love me" hardly counts these days as a fresh artistic insight, poignant as that realization may be; and at any rate, the question at hand is the connection between that lack of love and Anderson's own artistic drive - a question which she seems unable to ponder, or even formulate.

And if Anderson hasn't made much progress in content, it's worth pointing out she hasn't progressed much in technique, either.  The fusion of spoken word, music, and electronic imagery that her career always seemed to promise still feels out of reach - or at least it does in Delusion. But a few images faintly resonate here and there. A central love-seat covered in a funeral shroud flickers occasionally with an eye, or some other ghost of human anatomy; memorial candles evocatively dot the stage, although whether they're there for Anderson's mother or her own motivation, you're never sure. Still, you could feel connections winking on and off between the text and the visuals. The music was less integrated, beyond being generically mournful. But then again, I don't think Anderson's fans really expect her shows to cohere; that wandering quality, with its perpetual sense of unfulfilled promise, is part of her appeal. And given those expectations, I have to admit I think that Delusion will satisfy her fan base. And at least it's a hell of a lot more sophisticated than Lawrence Welk.

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