The Runners-Up is a new monthly column, wherein we will analyze an album that isn’t the consensus first choice or most canonical title by a given artist, but is one worthy of more attention than it’s received to date. The first album we’ll look at is…
Mister Heartbreak (Warner Bros.)
When Laurie Anderson distilled elements of her ambitious, impressive performance piece United States into a single album and convinced bewildered Warner execs to release it as Big Science in 1982, it caught the critical establishment entirely by surprise. Here was a record by a quirky, unique, clever and intelligent female voice that grafted the bourgeoning electronic pop format with arty psychedelic elements to create something like—well, that was the point: there really wasn’t anything like it at the time. It was widely, and rightly, regarded as a minor masterpiece, with the cool, post-modernist ballad “O Superman (For Massanet)” singled out as representative of its unique and strangely appealing tone.
There’s no denying that Big Science was, and is, a terrific album. So why were the critics less than kind to the follow-up, 1984’s Mister Heartbreak? More than a few reasons: there’s the lazy tendency to chalk up any variation or progression to “sophomore slump”; the unlucky fact that in the two years between the albums, synth-driven strangeness had become a bit more commonplace; and the fact that innovation always has more cachet than refinement. Curiously, there’s also a perception that Mister Heartbreak is a more “mainstream” album; while it did do better commercially than Big Science, hitting #60 on the Billboard album charts as opposed to its predecessor’s #124, there’s not a single track on it that could reasonably called, then or now, a traditional pop song or a concession to public taste.
Regardless of the reasons, though, Mister Heartbreak is almost universally held to be a good album, but an inferior effort to the electrifying originality of Big Science. And that’s too bad, because it’s Mister Heartbreak that’s the more listenable, the more accomplished, and the more successful of the two on its own terms. (Neither are the most ambitious; that title belongs to the daunting but masterful United States Live.) While it isn’t as immediately stunning as Big Science, everything that Anderson did well on her first album she did better on her second. Its song structures are more complex and interesting, without losing their pop sensibilities, and by 1984 she’d managed not only to master the Synclavier to the degree that she coaxed sounds out of it that weren’t present in her previous work, but also to add new and fascinating effects to the vocoder and the electric violin—some of which she designed herself—that give the entire proceeding an eerie, otherworldly feel.
Anderson also assembled a crackerjack band to back the pieces she wrote for Mister Heartbreak: Bill Laswell on bass, Adrian Belew and Nile Rodgers on guitar, and the terrific Anton Fier on drums are far and away the best group of musicians she would ever work with, and all are given plenty to do. Anderson’s sense of humor, which so effectively set her apart from so many serious-faced members of the New York arts scene of the day, is in full bloom right off the bat in some of the faux-panicky lyrics of the opening track, “Sharkey’s Day.” And most importantly, the album works, if not as a concept album, at least an album that seems designed to be a thematic whole. Bookended by “Sharkey’s Day” and “Sharkey’s Night,” and carried from strength to strength from the dreamy “Langue d’Amour,” the dense “Gravity’s Angel,” and the languid, gorgeous “Blue Lagoon,” it manages to sustain a consistent and deeply affecting mood and tone from beginning to end.
Some of the criticism of Mister Heartbreak stems from the fact that it seems over-reliant on her arts-scene crowd, as opposed to Big Science, which came off as more of a solo affair. But this only holds up on paper. Peter Gabriel’s presence here isn’t a distraction; his tracks are definitely marked by his presence, but they’re also distinctly Laurie Anderson, and he fits in better than she did in his work. The appearance of William S. Burroughs on “Sharkey’s Night,” likewise, never comes off as stunt-casting, largely because his dry, mordant voice is perfect for her witty lyrics, and the song is too short for him to outstay his welcome. The long tracks use their length to immerse the listener in their mood, while the short ones (“Sharkey’s Night” and “Excellent Birds,” co-written with Gabriel) get their message across without becoming tedious.
Most of all, Mister Heartbreak does something its predecessor never quite pulls off: it adds an element of emotional warmth and closeness while maintaining the arch irony of its postmodern origins. Good as it was, powerful—let’s say beautiful—songs like “Langue d’Amour” and “Blue Lagoon” wouldn’t have fit in on Big Science. Even “Gravity’s Angel”—based on a Thomas Pynchon novel, for goodness’ sake—has an immediacy and closeness (thanks largely to the great band Anderson put together) that separates it from the first album. The album works not because it is more original or more striking than Big Science, but because what that record did, it does just as well or better, while adding qualities that are just as unexpected for the fact that they are so recognizable.
Watch the video for “Sharkey’s Day”: