Laurie Anderson has long been one of my favorite artists. Her unique brand of performance art—the genre the artist claims for herself—could be called postmodern storytelling: a mix of spoken word, the electronically altered human voice, and ambient or pop music grooves mixed in with the occasional odd lyric and visual projection. Gradually, Anderson has segued from ribbing technology and the cult of expertise to exploring the ways in which we're profoundly alienated by them. As I wrote when she performed Happiness at Duke in 2002, the strongest of her recent works are technological ghost stories—in which we find ourselves, ironically enough, the ghosts.
That said, I take no joy in reporting that Homeland, her latest work, which opened Duke Performances' 2008-09 season Thursday night in Page Auditorium, is the weakest of at least eight live performances I've seen by her over the past 20 years—along with the various film, audio and video documentations of her work I've experienced since 1983.
For if chilly stories and wry, plangent social observations have always been Anderson's greatest strength, even her most devoted fans have to admit that her songwriting has rarely, if ever, been as accomplished. Taken as a whole, the songs in Homeland are not strong. In more than one case, an endless—and indulgent—series of far too incremental lyrics should have been edited to make for shorter and more potent works. Elsewhere, needless, extended-mix repeats of choruses and bridges exhausted the audience's patience, as was witnessed by the walkouts that began mid-performance. Even the wittiest of Anderson's new songs, "Problem," had worn out its welcome before the last in a lengthy series of reiterations of the tag line "Only an expert can deal with a problem." Anderson's prettiest songs are too gossamer to hold together; the grittiest, too preachy and obvious.
One of the show's few highlights involved the Voice of Authority, the name Anderson has given the male persona she explores in monologues, delivered in an electronically lowered voice. Though we've been hearing his commentary since the 1980s, he has never sounded more wistful—or chilling—than now.
In "Mambo and Bling," after riffing on an election year political joke, the Voice said, "Come on, let's hear it for the clowns." After a moment in which the audience didn't respond, he then said, "No? Fine. Your silence will be considered as your consent." Though that line was repeated a time or two as well during the sequence, its political and social implications actually grew more powerful—and sobering—with each reiteration. Would that we could say as much for the rest of Ms. Anderson's musical filibuster Thursday night.