Laurie Anderson, “Big Science” [reissue]
The strange angelicism of Laurie Anderson has been so much a part of the modern avant-garde pop firmament for so long that you almost forget her algebraic roots in true experimental music, tangled language poetics/semiotics, and performance art. This reviewer is just old enough (yet very young while witnessing it—don’t try to do the math) to recall her bedraggled spoken-word efforts for Giorno Poetry Systems, her time spent in the service of and in collaboration with William S. Burroughs, and her college classroom tours where she touted her self-made “tape-bow violin” utilizing magnetic tape on a violin’s bow instead of horsehair with a tape head in its bridge.
It’s that more rarified air, a Nova Convention of the mind, into which she ushered forth her major-label debut full-length, Big Science, in 1982. Re-released on red vinyl now by Nonesuch, the record is still a delectably odd beauty. As the captain of a tilted ship on rocky waters, Anderson led the grand schooner’s orchestra with a handful of spare, self-penned compositions, a Vocoder, a Farfisa organ, her violins, and her marimba. Her crew played glass harmonica and accordion (Roma Baran), bagpipes (Rufus Harley), piccolo, bottles, and sticks (Perry Hoberman), clarinet (Peter Gordon), and timpani (David Van Tieghem), among more (or less) conventional instrumentation.
“This is the time. And this is the record of the time,” she deep breathes through the un-Vocoderized parts of “O Superman,” itself, an eerily extended cut whose mesmerizing repetition was as entrancing as its slow-spoken, self-evident rhetoric. As its melody ascended, so too did its piss-taken militaristic message. “When love is gone, there’s always justice / And when justice is gone, there’s always force / And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi Mom.”
Seduced as one may be by Anderson’s even, snake-charming tone on “O Superman,” they’re equally likely to be dumbstruck by Anderson’s glissando high-pitched whine on the throbbing “Sweaters,” and the yodeling title track. Then there’s the mix of jarring, off-kilter reeds and out-of-step rhythms that is closer “Let X=X/It Tango” and opener “From the Air,” the latter track made giddily humorous by Anderson’s icy-calm flight directions, her mad cackle straight out of W.S. Burroughs’ handbook, and her masterful manipulation of the everyday into something magical. If language is indeed a virus as she and Burroughs insisted, the only way to a cure is through its infection.