Indelible, Bright Red is a mature, crafted, high-polish, art-avante concept album. I’ve had this album for 15 years. I know it like the back of my hand. I started playing this a lot in 1995 and found it the most fascinating thing I’d ever heard. Creepy. Dark. Haunting. Packed full of meaning. It’s beautiful and smooth – a pure ambient sound, with some severe percussive backtracking on certain songs, while others present an eerie twinkling state-of-the-art clean studio-synth sound. The album is produced by Brian Eno. Lyrically, it’s even more fascinating still. It’s the only album I’ve ever really thought about the lyrics in great detail – a kind of hypnotic poetry set to music. In terms of ‘concept album’, what we get here is a self-referential world, like a spherical concept where songs link up thematically across the whole piece. Certain words and phrases are repeated and brought up to create a network of links between tracks.
The following review might make me sound a bit mad, but I’ve always thought Bright Red was more than just an album – it’s more like an induction. It’s high concept stuff. It talks to you the listener and pulls (or tries to pull) you the listener into an inescapable “endless circle” which is the CD itself (this was only released on CD). If that sounds weird, I’m not the only one who thought so. When Anderson sent off the newly recorded album to Warners, apparently they sent back a missive saying “What the hell is this?” There are not many good reviews of this album on the net. All Music Guide claims ‘too dark’ as the probable reason for its unpopularity and only gives it three stars, which I suspect is a kneejerk reaction to its perceived failure to ignite the critics’ passions.
The first half of this album is called “Bright Red,” the second half, “Tightrope,” and the two halves have slightly different themes that separate them, but there are still a plethora of inter-song references that link the whole thing up into a very convoluted and circular concept album. The second half of the album starts to get more personal; less of the overarching you/me thing, but there are still plenty of links in the songs to pull you in close. Anyway, enough of the mystery. Bumstead, the readers are waiting. Roll the words.
Speechless…uses a memory to bring you into her story. Here Laurie ‘recalls’ the summer of 82. You and her jump in a car and hit the road, with no particular destination in mind; “We were going nowhere / Just driving around / We were going in circles / And me, I was just hanging on… / …Like in that Annie Dillard book / Where she sees an eagle / With the skull of a weasel / Hanging from its neck.” This leads to the metaphor in the chorus; “Eagle bites the weasel / Weasel bites back / They fly up to nowhere / Weasel keeps hanging on / Together, forever.” Almost all the music here is percussion – these really crisp clear drums, military snare, cymbals, rimshots, highhats, toms – all played in a very precise pattern designed to fit around the lyrics. There are places where she dramatizes her voice in an overcooked spooky way that teeters between scary and comic. Spooky is the operative word here. Many of the synthetic sounds on the album are spooky. Synths come in to supplement the drums after the first chorus. “You did all the talking / And me, I didn’t make a sound / And if I opened my mouth, I’d fall to the ground/ And if I could open my mouth now / There’s so much I would say / Like I can never be honest / Like I’m in it for the thrill / Like I never loved anyone / And I never will.” She then remembers an old coat her grandmother used to wear “made of weasels biting each others’ tales / A vicious circle, an endless ride / On the back of an old woman.”
Now, the “together forever” motif and the theme of circles is important here. This song sets the theme for the whole album, which can be seen in terms of a CD which is a circle, but is also a very long spiral of sound, a long thin line of sound running from the outer edge of the CD to the inner, and this ‘vicious circle’ or ‘endless ride’ she sings about, can be seen in terms of this album. The last track makes that clear too, but we’ll come to that later. Now, if you look at those lyrics I quoted in the paragraph above, you’ll see there’s a distinct creepy menace there. She seems to be saying “you will never ever get rid of me. We’re stuck together forever.” You (the eagle) picked her up, and she (the weasel) bit back. The weasel dies but its teeth are clenched on so firmly that the eagle is destined to fly around with the weasel’s skull stuck on its neck forever, or at least until it dies. Now, I’ll step a little further out into interpretation here. What if the ‘you’ in the song is you the listener. You have picked her up (you literally pick up the CD and buy it) and she bites back, and you’re stuck with this mental mind trap for the rest of your life. She, Laurie Anderson, bites you the listener, like the weasel biting the eagle. How does she do it – that bite? Read on – the bite is the next track.
Bright Red…the eponymous title track. What does it mean? Bright Red is often the signal colour for “DANGER” or “WARNING.” This song makes that clear. So there’s a suggestion that what we are about to hear is dangerous. That sense of menace can be heard in the lyric, “Come here little girl / Get into the car.” This track has two vocalists, a man and a woman, both with deep voices, who speak one or two words each in order to complete each others’ sentences. It’s deeply hypnotic. The music is a trancey twinkly thing with a very sad sounding synth behind it. The quality of the voices (as on every track) is warm, reassuring, pure and right up front in the mix. Nothing gets into your head like this track. Imagine for a second, the bite of a weasel. There’s two rows of teeth clenched onto flesh, until flesh and weasel’s clench are integrated as one. That’s what this track does. “Did she / fall / or / was she / pushed? / Your / shirt / on / my / chair [repeat] … I’ll be / with you / I’ll be / there / I’ll never / leave you / Your / shirt / on / my / chair.” These are the words which attempt to hypnotize you the listener into becoming the ‘you’ in the song. The alternating voices equate with the weasel’s bite, the row of alternating up/down teeth clenched onto the eagle’s neck. They ask a question; “Did she / fall / or / was she / pushed?” Either way, she has gone over the edge – the edge of this madness. The shirt and the chair create an image for your mind to latch onto. You see it. You become one with it. It doesn’t really matter who owns the shirt and who the chair.
The song gets creepier. “Come / here / little / girl / Get / into / the / car / It’s / a / brand / new / Cadillac / Bright / red / Come / here / little / girl / … / Hey / haven’t / I / seen / you / somewhere / before? / Your / despair / in my / heart / Bright / red / Your / words / in / my / ears / I’ll / be / with / you / I’ll / be / there / I’ll never / leave you / Your / shirt / on / my / chair.” So you’re getting into the Cadillac. It’s the car from the first song. You’re being invited to jump in and it’s bright red – a dangerous Cadillac and that Cadillac is this album and you’re going along for the ride, as per the opening lyrics from the first song. The words repeat the main refrain, “together forever” again and there’s a haunting piece near the end where Laurie quotes part of the bible – the last words of Isaiah’s prophecy about the destruction of Babylon after which it is to become inhabited by wild beasts and owls. This is a post-hypnotic suggestion – an image of doom and destruction, the sense of despair she is injecting into your heart right now with these prophetic words. In summation then, here she’s using images and language to get into your mind, to haunt you, to create images that lock Anderson the artist to you the listener and to stay locked ‘forever’. Look at the lines, “Your words in my ears” and “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” These lines are important because every time you listen to the album, she’s talking to you, as if to say, “Hey, you’re back, I knew you’d come.” And here is where she switches with you. The line “your words in my ears” is from you the listener’s point of view. You switch places with her. She’s inside of you and you’re inside of the circle.
Puppet Motel…so here we are in the puppet motel. This is keeping in theme with what I’ve just been saying. You the listener are now her puppet, because the way she sees it, she’s got inside your mind and through language she can now control what you think. It’s as if she’s hypnotised you by suggestion, even if it’s only to suggest that you listen to the album a few more times to suss it out. The first time you listen to these songs, you have no idea what’s going on. How can you? It’s only one day when you’re listening to it and you realize you know every word to every song that you’re like, “Hang on, this is me now. I’ve become the speaker. It’s as if I’m on the inside of the CD, speaking out.”
The puppet motel takes for its metaphor a storyline about internet users. Who is that? Only everyone. Users who log in every day. The puppet motel is the internet in the metaphor, but in the realm of her album, the metaphor stands for the idea of you the listener lodging in the rooms of these songs. And in so doing, you allow her to lodge herself in your mind, enabling her to control what you think.
Thus if ‘Bright Red’ is a kind of hypnotism, everything after that is post-hypnotic suggestion. ‘Puppet Motel’ uses a particularly spooky kind of instrumentation. The music is entirely percussive – a heavy, almost nasty, scary beat. “All the puppets in this digital jail / Running around in a frenzy / Searching for the holy grail / Having virtual sex / And eating virtual food / No wonder these puppets / Are always in a lousy mood.” The idea is that you think of internet users, chatroomers, (Hey, this came out in 94). “Boot up / Good afternoon / Pause / Ooh, I really like the way you talk / Pardon me / Shutdown.” The idea of the metaphor is this: you log in to her album. You boot up at the start and you shut down at the end. You really do like the way she talks, because the tonal quality of her voice and the lyrical content are full of a strange beauty. You like it because she talks directly to you.
Speak My Language…she is relentless. She’s not going to let go of you that easily. Here Anderson invites you to “speak my language.” She’s inviting you to become her. It’s part of the trading places and getting inside of your head routine. The music in this song is extremely despairing – a slow mournful state of the art synth sound. It’s also the second time there’s a slight comic/serious crossover. The song has several “oohs” and “ahhs” done in an over-the-top horror film voice. It has a weird creepy synth line with a tom-tom that sounds like cannibals beating drums on a tropical island at night. “Where I come from / Is a long thin thread / Across an ocean / Down a river of red / Now that the living / Outnumber the dead / I’m one of many / Speak my language.”
I think this track is where she turns back to herself. Having utterly got your attention in ways you don’t even realize, she’s now here to bring you into the crux of her album. She’s here to pass on the message, which is more sensuous than semantic, because it’s awfully cryptic, and awfully sad. It’s her despair. This is essentially her cry of despair, and she’s injecting it straight into your head. She’s bringing you over to her side. “Speak my language,” she whisper-sings several times. She refers to her father in this song, which connects with the next song…
World Without End…continues with her own story. “I remember where I came from / There were burning buildings and a fiery red sea / I remember all my lovers / I remember how they held me / World without end / Remember me.” Again the instrumentation here is beautiful but utterly, compellingly depressing. “When my father died / We put him in the ground / When my father died / It was like a whole library burned down / World without end / Remember me.” And that leads me to the central message, or crux of the whole album; it’s always concerned with this idea of “remember me.” The theme returns again and again. But she’s not only asking to be remembered, she’s making it impossible for you to not remember her. She is leaving you the listener with this idea that if you pick her up, she will be with you forever. She’s creating a document that cannot and will not be understood in its own time. It will take years, maybe decades, before the impact of this album is realized.
Freefall…the lyrics here bring you back to the hypnosis routine. This song uses the metaphor of diving and being underwater to immerse you in her message. This is my favourite “song” here. It has a bit more of a tune and works more like a song in its own right. But it also has a beautiful, clear, technologically enhanced quality of sound. It’s music made to capture the feeling of being underwater. It’s difficult to explain exactly but if you’ve ever been scuba diving, this captures something of the experience perfectly. She’s gone all out here to not just bring you underwater with her lyrics, but also in the sound. Gorgeous drum sounds. Submarine-like burbles. Dolphin-like squeaks and a deep wobbly synth line, somewhat morbid, but utterly compelling. Like being seduced by a mermaid.
I’ll quote some lyrics. “You’re out on the ocean / And you get pulled down / Freefall to the bottom / Like when you’re drowning / Or falling asleep / You get turned around / And when you think you’re swimming to the surface / You’re swimming straight down / Down to the bottom / All the way to the bottom / … / Secret codes and cryptograms / I’m lost in your words / I’m swimming / Rapture of the deep.” Need I say more? She brings you back down, under the spell of the music and the words. She turns you around. You get lost in her words. You identify with her so that “I” means you the listener.
“I got your letter / I couldn’t read it / It was a cryptogram / Did it say ‘take me with you?’ / Or ‘take me as I am?’” See the cleverness of that? Either way, you have to be ‘taken’. You have to go. The choices are about ‘how’ you want her to take you. “We’re going all the way to the bottom / We get turned around / There is another world spinning / Inside of this one / Rapture of the deep.” This song is pure rapture. The lyrics fit with the theme of the whole album. She takes you down to the bottom (those really depressing two songs before this one), she turns you round (as noted before – you become her), and you are lost in her words (because with the first umpteen spins of the CD you have no idea what she’s singing about). This song returns to the whole hypnosis idea (“falling asleep”) and musically it’s very hypnotic as it pulls you down deeper than ever. You really are going all the way to the bottom with her. In the middle of the song is this lyric: “I remember where I came from / There were tropical breezes / And a wide open sea / I remember my childhood / I remember being free.” She’s reminding you about your lost innocence.
Muddy River…is quite biblical-sounding. It’s also very dark and comes across as prophetic. It’s all about a flood that seems to wipe out most of the earth. “Mud is everywhere / Fish are swimming in the fields / Everybody’s running around / They’re yelling / ‘Is this the end of the known world?’ / And when the muddy river / Starts to rise / It covers us all / But when I look into your eyes / Two tiny clocks / Two crystal balls / We begin again, we try / We begin again / Down by the muddy river.” Here you’ll see that the idea, already mentioned earlier, of “beginning again” is brought back – the post-hypnotic suggestion to begin again, to start over, to play this CD again. This song is pretty depressing and kind of scary and it ties in with two other songs to follow. Later we’ll revisit the “two tiny clocks” and another prophetic disaster song similar to this one called ‘Love Among The Sailors.’ She seems to be looking deep into the future here. This song is kind of like an implant of doom. It scares you. It depresses you. It fills your heart with despair, just like the despair she tells you she’s going to fill your heart with back in the second track, ‘Bright Red.’
I think I should pause a moment and take stock here to acknowledge that my whole ‘she’s trying to hypnotise you’ theory probably sounds ridiculous. I’ve never met anyone else who knows this album. The only half-decent review I’ve ever found is the three-star effort on http://www.allmusic.com which calls it a ‘dark album’ as if to explain its lack of popularity. They may be well right, but I believe Anderson is aiming for the long term here. It doesn’t matter that it’s not popular. The techniques she’s using on this album will be discovered at a more popular level one day, and it will live on in history, and that’ll be well past the end of our lives.
Beautiful Pea Green Boat…takes the nonsense poem by Edward Lear, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ and turns it into a song. Why? Good question. How does it fit into the album? A nonsense poem consists of unintelligible words (like the lyrics to this album) but it’s a poem that ends with a very important image – a ring. I won’t quote the lyrics here, but basically the owl & the pussycat sail over the ocean “in a beautiful pea green boat.” At the end they fall in love and get married. For a wedding ring, they use the ring at the end of the pig’s nose. A ring fits the album perfectly – the circularity motif and the symbolic value of a wedding ring – the reminder that we’re “together, forever” – which is how I see this song working as a metaphor for the overarching theme. She’s inserting that ring thing on your mental finger – just one more way to remind you that you and her are stuck together, forever. Before she sings the poem though, it starts with these words: “I’m lying in the shade of my family tree / I’m a branch that broke off / What will become of me? / Dear Mum, I’m lying here on this queen size bed / I’m thinking back to all those stories you read to me / But I can’t remember now / Dear mum, how does it end?” She’s drawing your attention to how it ends – it ends with the ring, which is to say, it never ends, or it ends in infinity – the endless circle. She sings “Dear Mum” suggesting that the songs are about to get more personal. The music here is percussive, some guitars too, and an Eastern-European sounding box-concertina thing. I love the way this finishes. It gets quite creepy with some really weird sound effects.
Love Among the Sailors…is the next prophetic doom song, this time about a plague. “There is a hot wind blowing / Moves across the oceans / And into every port / A plague, a black plague / There’s danger everywhere / And you’ve been saved”. What can we make of that? “You’re alone on an island now / Tuning in / Did you think this is the way your world would end / Hombres, sailors, comrades?” Again, she brings back the despair. Again, she puts you the listener into her metaphor; “alone on an island, tuning in.” Apparently you’ve been saved. Is she saving you? Has she saved you somehow by pulling you into her world, by getting into your mind? Musically, it’s quiet and somber. “There is no pure land now / No safe place / Come with us into the mountains / Hombres, sailors, comrades.” And then its over. Very morbid. Think of the Pied-Piper who lured children into the mountain with his flute; “Come with us into the mountains.” She’s inviting you to go with her, where you’ll be safe, not unlike the invitation back in ‘Bright Red’ to get into the car, but where that was dangerous, this time she’s going to protect you. You’ve come this far you see, and you need saving from the…
Poison… which is another song that seems more personal. This is spooky, growling, low-lit, late night music. She seems to be singing to an ex-lover here. “It was one of those black cat nights / I’ll never forget it / We had a fight / You left our bed / Then you moved downstairs to live with her instead.” The chorus goes; “Did I drink some poison / That I don’t remember now? / Have I got blood on my hands? / No, my hands are clean. / Did I do something in another life time / That was really, really mean?” It’s not hard to think of the ‘I’ in “Did I drink some poison,” as you the listener. It’s as though something’s happened to you, but you don’t know what. Something like poison has gotten inside of you but you don’t realize it. It gets crazy; “I hear some voices / Think I’m losing my mind / Think I’m going crazy / Run into the street / Get out of my way / Get out, get out.” She then uses the imperative form to insert a dangerous image. Apropos of nothing comes this line: “A small bullet / A piece of glass / And your heart just grows around it.” This song is called ‘Poison’. Warning bells. Bright Red. Another metaphor for what’s happening. You’re being poisoned, but remember, you’ve been ‘turned around’ by the track ‘Bright Red’ as suggested in the song ‘Freefall.’ Thus when she sings, “Did I drink some poison,” the suggestion lies within that you the listener are being poisoned by this album. The prophetic songs are her despair which she places in your heart, like a small bullet or a piece of glass, and your heart just grows around it. Danger. Alarm bells should be ringing. This song is sheer madness. It’s the very madness that I’m exhibiting by writing about the album in this way. But you see what’s happening here? I can’t go round shouting this stuff to the world: It makes me look mad; I can’t prove any of this. I sound like a paranoid schizophrenic. And she plays on that to her advantage. She’s laughing at the listener. No-one’s going to believe me. Think of DiCaprio’s character in Shutter Island. The music supports the creepy darkness of this song. “I can hear the two of you playing records downstairs / Moving furniture and fooling around,” she sings. The two of you? Yes, you and Laurie Anderson, playing her record, Bright Red. That’s who. Mad right? Hmm…perhaps.
In Our Sleep…is where Anderson ropes boyfriend Lou Reed in to become the ‘other voice’. This song was released as the single, and consequently it’s a little more guitar-driven and song-like. Yet it fits in tightly to the overarching theme. Again the male and female voices alternate. “In our sleep / Where we meet / Listen to the drums beat / In our sleep.” Remember, this album is almost made entirely of percussion – listen to those drums beat in your sleep – that is, the hypnosis-induced sleep you are in now, as you listen to this song. The voices sound drowsy. Really cool drum beat here and a weird sitar-like sound droning in the background. “In our sleep / As we speak / Listen to the drums beat / In our sleep,” goes Lou, and then Laurie sings, “In our sleep / As we speak / Listen to the drums beat / As we sleep.” The theory holds; she reminds you yet again of how “we” are together, “in our sleep.” i.e. that hypnosis thing, and in the middle of the song, they talk together; “In our sleep,” says Lou; “Where we meet,” says Laurie. And we’re back to that whole idea we encountered in the tracks ‘Bright Red’ and ‘Muddy River’; “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” and “We begin again.” The circular motif of coming around and around is here to re-hypnotize you, just in case you were starting to wake up.
Night in Baghdad…perhaps the only song that doesn’t seem to fit easily with my overarching theory of hypnosis. The lyrics are simple and descriptive. “It’s like a Christmas tree / It’s like the fourth of July / It’s like fireflies on a hot summer night.” Given that this was made in 1994, it could well be referring to the first Gulf War, but it’s far more oblique than that. “I have a question / Did you ever really love me? / Only when we danced / And it was so beautiful / It was like the fourth of July / It was like fireflies on a summer night.” The music sounds exactly like a hot summer night. You can hear the warmth in the air. You can hear twitchy insect sounds. “And I wish I could describe this to you better / But I’ve got this damn gas mask on / Let’s see if we can stick this microphone out the window and hear a little better / Hello California / What’s the weather like out there now?” I can only class this as a ‘despair in your heart’ song.
I have to pause here: This is the first song to really trip me up. If it does fit into the scheme, is it because she’s made a lover out of you the listener? Or is she singing to an ex-lover, as we’ve seen in other songs like ‘Poison’ and ‘Speechless’? Is she really directing all these songs at you the listener, or could the ‘you’ be all her ex-boyfriends – any of them who happen to be listening. That’s what might be happening here. The real ‘you’ in these songs could be men she’s loved and men who’ve loved her; they are the people she doesn’t want to be forgotten by. She’s not only asking them to remember her, she’s making a hypnotic masterpiece that ensures those fellows can never forget her. And that my friend, is creepy. Ergo, this next song.
Tightrope…takes the form of a dream. You see here, by now she’s switched a little to a more personal statement related to her own history of romance. Where the first half of the album may well have been “attaching herself” to any listener, the second half is attaching itself to her ex-lovers (and present lover too for that matter – Lou Reed who duets with her on ‘In Our Sleep’). If you’re an ex of Laurie Anderson then you’re in for a double whammy. This song toes the line (teeters on a tightrope?) brilliantly between comical and extremely scary. Here there’s a ‘rattle snake’ sound effect shaking its tail through the music, which is very effective in terms of added creepiness. She describes a dream where her family runs a theme park. Each ride is a part of her life. Her grandmother sells cotton candy. And there is a ferris wheel, a huge ferris wheel, out on the ocean (the ocean is prevalent throughout the album] and riding this ferris wheel are…well, let’s quote the lyrics exactly: “Half in and half out of the water / And all my old boyfriends are on it / With their new girlfriends / And the boys are waving and shouting / And the girls are saying “eek” / Then they disappear under the surface of the water / And when they come up they’re laughing and gasping for breath.” This song has a warm atmosphere but is imbued with creepy tropical island sound effects. This is a spoken word vocal, but it’s very pleasurable to listen to. “In this dream, I’m on a tightrope / And I’m tipping back and forth trying to keep my balance / And below me are all my relatives / And if I fall, I’ll crush them.” Laurie Anderson, performance artist on the highwire, must keep her balance. “This long thin line / This song line / The only thing that binds me to the turning world below / This long thin line made of my own blood.” I take this as a reference to her work as a recording artist. And here it comes – the all important message of the whole album, told to you first, then sung to you second; “Remember me is all I ask / And if remember be a task / Then forget me.” She tells you the listener and her ex-boyfriends, and if they happen to be listening to this album with their new girlfriends then “eek” is probably the appropriate response. “This long thin line / This tightrope made of sound,” is this CD, the long inwardly-spiraling line tracked by the laser in your CD player. She acknowledges that she’s performing a delicate balancing act here – this technique of drawing the listener in. Subliminal advertising on TV may be illegal, but where are the legal boundaries of what you can record on a ‘pop’ album? This harks back to something she says in the opening track Speechless. “If I opened my mouth now / I’d fall to the ground,” which is to suggest that she can’t tell us what it is she’s trying to do here. “Like I’m in it for the thrill,” she said on that track. What thrill? The thrill of being able to do this because it’s not illegal? Hmm…
Same Time Tomorrow…so of course, we have to finish off with another post-hypnotic suggestion, which is introduced here through a clever metaphor. Dig this: “You know that little clock / The one on your VCR / The one that’s always blinking twelve noon because you never figured out how to get in there and change it? / So it’s always the same time / Just the way it came from the factory / Good morning / Good night / Same time tomorrow / We’re in record.” Her horror movie “oohs and “ahhs” are back stronger than ever, but they’re so over the top you have to laugh. Do I even have to explain these lyrics? Surely by now, given all that I’ve said, it’s obvious what she’s getting at here; “See you again tomorrow, in our sleep, where we meet.” In this song, she asks some deeply philosophical questions. “What I really want to know is this / Is time long or is it wide?” and “Are things getting better or are they getting worse? / Can we start all over again? / Stop. Pause. / We’re in record. / Good morning / Good night.”
And…the final words of the whole album; “Now me in you / Without a body move / And in our hearts we fly / Standby / Good Morning / Good Night.” And what do you do? You’re completely under her hypnotic power. She’s just acknowledged that she’s inside of you (like a puppet master), and she simply says “Good morning / Good night,” knowing that you’ll be back to play this CD again tomorrow. “Same time tomorrow.” And I did. I played this album every day for months. This was before I had any inkling what was going on with these lyrics. I was being invited, nay, told, to come back tomorrow. Every day. Over and over, round and round. An endless circle, like that endless ride from opener, ‘Speechless’ “on the back of an old woman.” The old woman is Laurie Anderson.
This is Alan Bumstead’s 3rd Favourite Album of the 90s