Working Off What Comes In By E-Mail

To demonstrate his working relationship with Brian Eno, David Byrne plugs an iPod into his computer. From speakers comes the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar, the chords occasionally changing.

Eno had sent him the recording to see if Byrne could build a song around it. His old friend did, imagining a melody and singing gibberish to capture it. He replaced his wordless noise with lyrics, giving birth to the optimistic “My Big Nurse” on the duo’s new disc.

Photo: AP Photo
Brian Eno and David Byrne in an undated file image released by Sacks & Co.

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is the most delightful disc of Byrne’s post-Talking Heads career, and it all began with a nostalgic dinner.

Eno was in New York to help Byrne put the finishing touches on a repackaging of their 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which was innovative at the time for incorporating sounds from around the world. He mentioned having some skeletal music at home that needed lyrics.

They were both excited at how “One Fine Day,” Byrne’s first attempt trying to create a song out of what Eno had sent him, turned out — so they kept going. Byrne enjoyed the exercise of listening to someone else’s music and creating a world around it.

“A lot of decisions were narrowed down,” he said. “I worked with whatever came in to my e-mail box. It wasn’t the endless possibilities of an empty slate.”

For a duo praised for their adventurousness years ago, what’s most surprising here is the simplicity of the songs and their traditional structures. While there may be some foreboding in the lyrics, you sense from Byrne’s voice “that this person is going to go on and it’s going to be all right,” he said.

Eno has a reputation of being a musical egghead, but he is involved with a group of friends in London who occasionally meet just to sing Hank Williams and Elvis Presley songs and play guitars together. Byrne knows people in Texas who do the same thing.

“You can’t do that in New York,” this fixture of Manhattan’s downtown scene said with a laugh. “We’re too cool for that.”

Photo: Owen Sweeney III
The Grand Opera, Wilmington, Del.

Byrne heard echoes of those nights in the tracks Eno had sent him.

One parallel in Byrnes’ career may be Talking Heads’ Little Creatures album, which baffled some fans at the time with simple pop songs after a long period of experimentation. It may not seem new to the public at large, but it was new to them.

“I felt maybe a little bit of weight on this project,” Byrne said. “This can’t sound like ‘Bush of Ghosts II.’ It can’t sound like ‘Remain in Light II.’ It’s got to be something different. I don’t want to do a version of what we’ve done.”

Except for a week of finishing touches, the entire collaboration was done separately.

Their experimentation this time was on the business end. Byrne and Eno simply put the music for sale last summer on iTunes and a specially-created Web site, with no real promotion. They figured to attract fans curious about a new musical partnership, and sold nearly 20,000 downloads.

While there’s an exciting new freedom to deliver music today, that has its limitations: only so many people could be counted on to seek it out. They printed a disc to sell starting in late November.

Byrne has been on a concert tour where he plays music from his time with Eno, not only the old and new solo albums but from Eno-produced Talking Heads albums like Remain in Light. Eno himself isn’t participating.

Byrne understands. Eno’s thriving career producing artists like U2 and Coldplay is “probably not as hard as riding on the bus,” he said.