LAURIE ANDERSON Big Science (Nonesuch)

In its gently expanded 25th anniversary garb the cover of “Big Science” carries the text, taken from its opening track “From The Air”, “This Is The Time. And This Is The Record Of The Time.” It’s hardly empty hype and hot air: quite apart from the fact that Laurie Anderson’s debut album still sounds dewy fresh a quarter of a century later, subsequent events have imbued it with an eerie prescience. On the back cover Anderson is seen walking in the shadow of the World Trade Center; inside, amidst the answering machine chatter of the album’s big hit “O Superman” she sings, or perhaps more accurately intones, “Here come the planes / So you better get ready / Ready to go…They’re American planes / Made in America”., and during “Let X=X” confides “I feel like I am in a burning building”. For conspiracy theorists it surely ranks alongside Mark E Smith predicting the 1996 Manchester bombing on The Fall’s “The Light User Syndrome” album.

Outside of its crystal ball prophesising, “Big Science” is a darn fine pop album. It echoes the work of fellow adventurers such as Brian Eno, sometime collaborator Peter Gabriel and Philip Glass (the brass and Farfisa textures and repetitive loops of rhythm being strongly reminiscent of his early works such as “Music In Twelve Parts”). It’s cool and detached, more curious about humanity than immersed in it, whether describing a mid-air game of “Simon Says” on “From The Air” or evolving a civilisation in song like a sonic “Sim City” (the title track). Conversely, giving the lie to the impression that “Big Science” is all about metronomic machine music, the bagpipe-heavy “Sweaters” has a rolling, flowing gait that’s not a world away from Mary Margaret O’Hara. “Born, Never Asked” was later covered by Spiritualized, an ideal candidate for their brand of woozy technological bliss-out. It goes without saying that Anderson avoids sugar-coated sentimentality: for every “Honey you’re my one and only” there’s a “So pay me what you owe me”, but then she’ll wrongfoot you, that underlying cynicism melting in the face of the limitless romance of lines like “Your eyes / It’s a day’s work just looking into them”.

I’ve only made passing mention of the album’s most astonishing achievement, commercially and maybe musically as well. Could you imagine an 8-minute debut single (dedicated to Massenet, no less) from an unknown artist reaching number two in today’s singles chart? Me neither.

“Big Science” is almost like listening to the society that powered Brian Eno & David Byrne’s “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts” being recreated from the ground up, a whole new culture assembled from found sounds and dialog. It’s still crisp and beguiling, and if you like a little intellectual stimulation with your music (course you do, you’re in Mensa, right?) it deserves your time.