T Bone Burnett’s swan song as a recording artist, ‘The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space’ sounds a big note

Singer-songwriter-producer T Bone Burnett is releasing a new album, “The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space,” on April 12, a work he expects to be his final word as a recording artist.
(Josh Cheuse)

A couple of possible interpretations arise out of the sonic effects superstar producer T Bone Burnett uses to tweak his vocals on his first new studio album in a dozen years, “The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space.”

The distanced quality of a voice immersed in richly atmospheric soundscapes that Burnett, 71, has created suggests some extraterrestrial terrain light-years away, or perhaps an inner voice from deep within struggling to be heard against the noise of the outer world.

“I didn’t want it to be naturalistic,” Burnett explained while seated at a broad, elegant wood dinner table at his home in Brentwood. “I wanted it to be electronic and from another place …like it was coming from this other land where all this stuff is happening. ‘Itopia’ — that’s what I’ve been calling it.”

Wherever that voice might originate from, it’s sounding both a warning of looming dangers and offering possible responses to those perils, which reflect Burnett’s thinking two decades into the 21st century, as the world moves into an era dominated by behemoth tech monopolies and the dawn of life in the age of artificial intelligence. “The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space” is billed as the opening third of what Burnett, who has recorded with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello and more, says will be a trilogy of releases representing “my final statement” as a recording artist.


He’s tapping a lifetime of thinking on a plethora of subjects for something of an epic poem of his own, now running about 5,000 lines, he said. That’s the source of the material for “The Invisible Light” and its forthcoming successors, a creative outpouring he considers “lyrically and musically a culmination of everything I’ve learned.” He also said he expects he’ll publish the poem in its entirety at some point and call it quits as a recording artist.

Rather than discrete conventional songs, Burnett and his two longtime musical collaborators — percussionist Jay Bellerose and keyboardist and ambient music experimentalist Keefus Ciancia — have crafted a half-dozen extended tracks, all upward of six, seven or eight minutes long, heavy on improvisational interplay among the threesome, with Burnett’s lyrics serving as the equivalent of sheet music.

“They call it a trilogy,” he said of publicity and marketing efforts surrounding the April 12 release of “The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space.” “I don’t really call it that. I think of it as a long poem that we’re releasing in three editions. I’ve been writing like crazy for years, and so it has been a kind of gradual evolution.”

On one level, the album is a master-class showcase for Bellerose, whom Burnett describes as “the most musical drummer in the world today,” and Ciancia, whom he cites as one of the three most arresting electronic music composers today, along with Nine Inch Nails’ Atticus Ross and England’s Bobby Krlic from the Haxan Cloak (“They’re all taking that whole medium of electronic music to some other place that’s less machine-like,” he said, “and more human and more far-out”).

“We call it ‘Trip Visualist’ music,” he said with a light remnant of Texas drawl reflecting his upbringing in Fort Worth. “In a way, it’s music that we’ve composed for a film that hasn’t been made yet. And we’re scoring it to these lyrics.”

He plans to release the other two volumes of “The Invisible Light” roughly at six-month intervals, to be followed not by a conventional tour, but what he envisions as a series of sonic-visual installations that can expand on the immersive quality of the music. “I never really saw myself as a performer anyway,” he said.

“For most of my life I’ve been helping other people make records and I preferred to be offstage,” he said of his sporadic output of about a dozen solo albums over 47 years and three more in the mid-1970s as a member of the Alpha Band. “But now I felt it was time for me to dance or get off the floor. If I didn’t have anything to say by now, I should probably just hang it up.”

Burnett, however, still has plenty to say, and the lyrics that are at the heart of “The Invisible Light” come off as part poetry, part town crier, part Sermon on the Mount.

The album’s opening cut, “High John,” includes this image and idea-rich scenario: “High John The Conqueror/ Down by the border/ Fording the river/ Walking cross the water/ To the very gate of hell/ Where anyone can buy and sell/ Anything on which one can dwell/ Where the Celebrity in Chief/ Comes to grief.”

He also goes up-to-the-minute topical with the first video connected to the project, visualizing the song “Being There” (a nod to Jerzy Kosinski’s classic novel and subsequent film —“In Washington now, you know, we see people in positions of great power who watch television all the time and are basically idiots”).

The video is a collaboration between Burnett and the French artist-photographer who goes by the initials JR. It was filmed near the U.S.-Mexico border town of Tecate outside San Diego, and shows the raising of a massively enlarged photo of a young Mexican boy, making it appear that he is peering over the top of one section of border fencing.

It’s not a significant departure, thematically, for this lifelong seeker of larger truths, whose grandfather served as secretary for the Southern Baptist Convention.

A larger-than-life character who has long projected the air of an Old West preacher, thanks in part to his penchant for band-collar shirts, elegant black waistcoats and dusters, Burnett briefly attended Texas Christian University before abandoning academics for a career in music in a variety of roles. They’ve spanned record label talent scout, recording artist, key member of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in the mid-’70s, Grammy-winning producer and, in recent years, composer of music for HBO’s crime-drama anthology series “True Detective.” Burnett also produced the new album from Sara Bareilles, “Amidst the Chaos.”

“I started studying this philosophy in the early 1960s when I was a kid and Marshall McLuhan was writing about this,” he said. “He was writing about media in a kind of visionary way and [French political and social scientist] Jacques Ellul was writing about technology in a visionary way. I began to read their stuff and begin to study those ideas. Basically that’s all I’ve written about my whole life: this same subject that has to do with behavioral modification, electronic programming and conditioned responses.”

He sees those same issues playing out in the years and decades ahead as a crucial battle between individual freedom and the increased intrusion of tech giants such as Google, Apple and Amazon.

That provided the central theme of his recent keynote speech at the South By Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas, a talk often described in reports as “disruptive.”

Burnett calls musicians “the canaries in the coal mine” who were the first to experience in a tangible way how tech giants have co-opted and profited from their intellectual property, often with little or no remuneration to the creators.

Now, he notes, “I’m hearing about YouTube stars, so to speak, who are now quote-unquote getting ripped off by up-and-coming YouTube stars and they’re complaining about it: ‘I made this up and now this other guy is getting all the action from the very thing I made up.’ Oh really?” Burnett said. “Is that happening to you, YouTube star? I’m so sorry to hear that. That happened to us 20 years ago. Where were you then?”

Still, he thinks skepticism and scrutiny increasingly directed toward the tech giants reflects a growing acceptance of ideas he’s been espousing for years.

“Ten years ago when I went out and I would say the same thing that I said at South by Southwest, people would try to shout me down,” he said. “Now, no one is taking exception to what I said.”

His ultimate remedy, also not surprising given his long track record: art, which offers an answer that can’t be found in other endeavors.

“The artists are the only ones who ultimately can tell the truth,” he said. “Politicians certainly can’t tell the truth. They can’t tell the whole truth; neither can priests, and scientists don’t seem to be able to do it either.”

“I’m optimistic,” he said, “that human beings can make the right choices — if we’re alive to what’s going on. That’s why I’m talking about this stuff, because I believe human beings have never been better-positioned than we are at the moment to survive.”

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