Back when I was a high school student I was pretty enthralled with Big Science, the first album by musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson. It was weird—especially the dark humor of the apocalyptic jet flight chronicled in the opening track—at least for a junior living in a Philadelphia suburb in 1983. The following year I went to a lecture she gave in conjunction with an exhibit of her art at the University of Pennsylvania, where she demonstrated some of her manipulated instruments. I can’t remember exactly what she did, but I sure thought it was cool. She also previewed some bits from Mister Heartbreak, and she said no one had vocalist had a better sense of time than Captain Beefheart.
I eagerly bought Mister Heartbreak when it was released and I did the same for the overloaded live-album box set United States, Part I-IV, an indulgence that quickly weaned me off of her music and art. I stopped paying attention, especially as her public relationship with Lou Reed became the epitome of power art couple, but I always had a place in my heart for Big Science even if I never listened to it. Back in 2000 Rhino Records put out an Anderson anthology and those pieces from Big Science—“O Superman,” “From the Air,” and “Born, Never Asked”—still sounded great to me. Then last week Nonesuch released a 25th-anniversary edition of Big Science with improved sound, a thick booklet with a nice personal essay by Anderson, and videos for “O Superman” and “Walk the Dog,” the single’s B-side.
I’ve listened to this new version three or four times now, and while it’s hard to separate my sense of nostalgia from an honest critical assessment, I kind of doubt I’ll be pulling it out again anytime soon. The songs mentioned above are great musically, the contributions by bagpiper Rufus Harley still sound amazing, and some of Anderson’s lyrics presciently dealt with the encroaching digital future with sharp, funny wordplay. But a sparse piece like “Walking & Falling” is distant and smug, with spoken word bits crafted to sound more profound than they actually are, and some of the electronics sound cheesy and dated. Still, it’s impressive that an album like Big Science managed to cross over into the pop market (how “O Superman” became a chart hit in England still befuddles me), even if it ended up partly paving the way for the self-satisfied, quasi-intellectual art ethos that NPR listeners seem so proud of.