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Big Science

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iTunes Review

Avant-garde visionary or subversive interloper? In 1982, no one was quite sure what to make of Laurie Anderson after the release of her debut album Big Science. The veteran performance artist applied new rigor and insight to minimalist music-making with this influential work, a paired-down version of her theater piece United States. What makes Big Science such an enduring cult classic are the cleverness of its sonic stratagems and the austere wit of its lyrics. Anderson’s poker-faced recitations dissect suburban banality, parent/child relationships and the simmering paranoia of modern life. The mordant humor of “From the Air” and “O Superman” compliments the clinical alienation of “Born, Never Asked” and the romantic angst of “Let X=X”/”IT Tango.” Though a pop music outsider, Anderson proves herself adept with her chosen tools, whether she’s intoning through a vocoder, laying down a hypnotic keyboard line or wielding a demonic violin bow. The strangest thing about the album is how poignant much of it is — beyond all their sardonic observations, there’s a tragic sense to these fractured fairy tales. Big Science showed how the aesthetics of visual art could reshape contemporary music in startling ways. The results still make for a transformative experience.

Customer Reviews

Genuine Insight

A review of this album must first point out that when released in 1982 the last two songs – “Walk the Dog” and “Big Science 2” – were not included, These have been added subsequently. I know because I have the original vinyl album. And, I must say, in my opinion they really add nothing to the original artistic endeavor. Having said this I can now substantively deal with the merits of this work, which are very considerable. Being a scientist by basic disposition and training, I have often balked at the common observation that artists interpret what surrounds us in new and insightful and meaningful ways that the rest of us, especially scientists, ignore or fail to see. Having a lengthy career focusing on science, research and its integration with what might be considered a more artistic orientation in the realm of design, I can now say I was wrong in having been so skeptical of the artistic disposition. Genuine artists do offer acutely insightful, and sometimes frightening, observations about the rest of us. In my opinion, this album is one such example that probably has no equal when it comes to elucidating the essence of Science – its goal of continual progress, its emphasis on controlling the environment, and its basically consensual and social nature (Big Science). And, of course, its most fundamental premise – fact versus illusion (Let X=X, or what is equivalent, X≠Y). It is most astute that what is the core of this album called Big Science is entitled “Let X=X.” But what is equally important is that in the original album on vinyl the last song is entitled “Let X=X/It Tango.” The two imperceptibly blend into one another, as they do on this release. Why I find this most important is that as soon as she is finished with her illumination of what science is all about (Let X=X) she moves right into a contrast between Art and Science with the dialogue of the “It Tango” and the traditional gender stereotypes for art and science in this culture. This is a marvelous work of art, and by now, it should be considered an historical document, aside from the fact it is wonderful music.

Here come the planes, they're American planes...

Listening to "O Superman" after 9/11 and realizing that it was written in 81 or 82 will send shivers down your spine. The record was WAY strange and beautiful at the same time. Give it a listen.

More influential than first meets the ear.

To call Big Science "quirky" is a little like calling an A-Bomb "loud and hot." While technically correct, the description utterly fails to describe the phenomenon. Laurie Anderson has been flying around just under mainstream media's radar (intentionally) for over three decades, occasionally popping up in eclectic settings like Saturday Night Live, Nickelodeon's "Rugrats," the Lifetime Network, and as NASA's first ever artist in residence (and last ever, thanks to a 2005 amendment by former Indiana Representative Chris Chocola). To contemporary listeners, the vocodered vocals and synthesized ambient settings of Big Science may seem almost quaint, yet the influence of Anderson's innovations on later popular music are undeniable. Electronic performers like Imogen Heap, T-Pain, Dido, and Moby owe a considerable debt to Anderson's undaunted experimentation, as exemplified by "Let X=X" and the classic "O Superman." Even at its weirdest, in the nails-on-the chalkboard nasal refrains of "Sweaters," the seamless blending of vocals and harsh violins presages Anderson's later (and more musical) collaborations with Bobby McFerrin, as well as McFerrin's solo vocal work. Fans of Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs will appreciate the spoken-word experiments of "From the Air" and "Born, Never Asked," which showcase the deadpan wit that charms Anderson's fans and galvanizes her detractors. Tracks added in the 2007 re-release are "Walk the Dog," the highly avant-garde B-side of the "O Superman" single, and "Big Science 2," a new piece that transposes the original track into a decidedly 21st century context. For fans of Philip Glass, John Zorn, The Velvet Underground, and Brian Eno, this album is required listening. For those with more mainstream tastes, though, this album won't necessarily be easy listening. Laurie Anderson is an artist's artist, the kind of person Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, and Andy Kaufman might look to for inspiration during a dry spell. Big Science is avant-garde, unfettered and experimental. Much of it was created for live performance, and something IS lost in translation to audio-only. For a more aurally palatable introduction to Laurie Anderson, give a listen to her 1989 album, Strange Angels, and come back to Big Science when you like what you hear.


Born: June 5, 1947 in Chicago, IL

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

After briefly entering the mainstream pop radar in 1981 with her lone hit "O Superman," Laurie Anderson enjoyed a public visibility greater than virtually any other avant-garde figure of her era. Her infrequent forays into rock aside, Anderson nevertheless remained firmly grounded within the realm of performance art, her ambitious multimedia projects encompassing not only music but also film, visual projections, dance, and -- most importantly -- spoken and written language, the cornerstone of all...
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