Laurie Anderson's third proper studio album, coming over five years after 1984's Mister Heartbreak (1986's Home of the Brave was a film soundtrack), is a near-total departure from anything she had done before or, indeed, anything she did after. The most purely musical of Anderson's albums and the one on which she does the most actual singing (though her trademark deadpan spoken-word passages are still present and accounted for), Strange Angels seems to be Anderson's idea of a straightforward pop album.
It's not at all surprising that Laurie Anderson would make a film dealing with grief and loss, especially as one of her first major projects after the death of her husband Lou Reed. But instead of offering a tribute to her late spouse, Anderson chose to make a film that dealt with another departed loved one: her dog…
While Laurie Anderson's music works well enough on its own terms, her 1986 concert film Home of the Brave (which she directed herself) makes it clear that her work is better served when you can see her performing it. While Anderson isn't exactly playing to the cheap seats most of the time, she's a far more accessible and engaging performer than most folks involved in "performance art" (and watching this film makes it clear that, while music is the core, performance art is indeed what Anderson is doing – the dancing, storytelling, and visual constructs are as much a part of the presentation as the musicians).
By placing the location and dates, "New York City, September 19-20, 2001," on the stark cover of this concert album, Laurie Anderson evokes the context in which the shows from which it was drawn occurred: They took place less than two weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the city that was one of the principal targets. Anderson is not the sort of artist one would think of immediately as an ideal commentator on those cataclysmic events; hers is a cool, ironic persona, and irony was one of the immediate casualties of the attacks. Her introductory comments do not bode well, as she speaks, in her perpetually becalmed voice, of the "great opportunity" the attacks provide to "live in a completely new world," surely not a sentiment her listeners can have shared, as the sparse applause indicates.
It's not at all surprising that Laurie Anderson would make a film dealing with grief and loss, especially as one of her first major projects after the death of her husband Lou Reed. But instead of offering a tribute to her late spouse, Anderson chose to make a film that dealt with another departed loved one: her dog. Her 2015 film, Heart of a Dog, is loosely centered around her experiences with her dog Lolabelle, a rat terrier who was adopted by the artist after being given up by a family going through a divorce.
Once her popularity seemed assured, Warner Bros. felt safe releasing this five-record set (since reissued on four CDs) comprising United States' entire four-and-a-half hours. It's not the first place I'd recommend going to hear Anderson's work, but for those so inclined it's well worth the effort. Although live performances of United States included film segments that ran during some of her monologues, United States is about communication and how we interpret and use language. It's a bit pretentious, a tad long-winded, and its size makes it unwieldy to listen to in one sitting, but this is an important work loaded with enough insight, wit, and humanity to make relistening and re-evaluating worthwhile.
'Homeland' is produced by Anderson with Lou Reed and Roma Baran, and engineered by Anderson, Pat Dillett, Mario McNulty, and Marc Urselli. The music is instantly recognizable as Anderson's, though it draws on a broad scope of styles: She sings throughout and plays newly developed sounds on violin, as well as contributing keyboards and percussion. Her vocals are often mediated by the vocal filter she long ago invented to perform her signature "audio drag," this time voicing Fenway Bergamot, the male alter-ego who appears on the album's cover and narrates the song "Another Day in America."