TALKING HEADS, “REMAIN IN LIGHT”

Talking-Heads-Remain-in-Light

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #16 – released October 8, 1980. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 11/16/2014.)

Track listing: Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) / Crosseyed and Painless / The Great Curve / Once In A Lifetime / Houses In Motion / Seen And Not Seen / Listening Wind / The Overload

It begins with David Byrne letting out a sudden, exclamatory “AH!” after three beats, but that percussive intro is irrelevant. The “AH!” is what’s important: a shock to the system, a call of arms, or perhaps Byrne, sensing the thrilling, unconventional music that will follow is simply incapable of containing himself. Immediately after the “AH!”, the band locks into the song’s relentless groove, where the melody plays over and over and its one chord never changes. This groove is repetitive almost to the point of seeming mechanical, although it is mostly played on guitars, bass, drums and keyboards. Over them, Byrne, in his inimitable, anxiety-ridden preacher’s bark (like a white-and-nerdy James Brown) interjects such phrases as “Take a look at these hands!” and “I’m a tumbler! I’m a government man.” These nonsensical but attention-grabbing words are just one layer of the song, soon joined by others such as Byrne slowly singing “All I want is to breathe / won’t you breathe with me,” and an exultant chorus belting out “Goes on! / And the heat goes on!” As in jazz, each layer gets its moment in the spotlight; however, in a manner akin to African music, all the layers build and splendidly come together at the song’s climax. With all this complexity and the underlying groove as an incredible foundation, it’s music that affects the head as much as the feet.

This song, “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”, is one of the all-time great album openers, and much of the rest of Remain In Light follows the template it sets. But first, before stepping back and examining how Talking Heads reached this synthesis on their fourth album, I need to address something else. In writing about these 100 favorite albums in chronological order, there’s nearly a three-year time jump between this record and the last one. It’s not as if nothing good was released in that period: The B-52s’ self-titled debut, Blondie’s Parallel Lines, Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English, The Clash’s London Calling, and Donna Summers’ Bad Girls have all meant a lot to me at various times of my life (not to mention Talking Heads’ third album, Fear In Music), but presently, none of them make my top 100. Honestly, I think this specific period altogether is more notable for exciting singles than albums, but that’s fodder for another project.

And so, we arrive at a new decade with an album produced by Brian Eno, whose last rock album of his own was our last entry. While Eno focused on making ambient music for himself, he developed an extensive side career producing post-punk acts heavily influenced by his ahead-of-its-time mid-70s work. His collaboration with Talking Heads was the most fruitful, as he also produced the band’s second and third albums. Immediately before Remain In Light, he also recorded a collaborative album with Byrne, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which was not released until 1981 and whose cut-and-paste aesthetic casts a heavy shadow here. Given this extended relationship, some began referring to Eno as a fifth member of the band around this time. However, with Byrne’s peculiar singularity front-and-center, no one would ever mistake these three Talking Heads albums for Eno’s solo work.

Still, on each of those albums, Eno guided the band towards an evolving sound and outlook, with Remain In Light revealing the most growth yet—it might be the first explicitly postmodern pop album I’ve written about here. Even the cover, a brilliant piss-take on band member portrait clichés like The Beatles’ Let It Be, implies skepticism towards genre and stylistic conventions. Of course, this is a band that titled their second album More Songs About Buildings And Food, but on Remain In Light, they’ve also radically altered the recording process. It all goes back to Eno’s idea of “the studio as a musical instrument”, only taking it a step further: instead of letting the band’s various improvisations directly shape the final product, those improvisations are merely ingredients or building blocks that can be later added and subtracted at will in creating the compositions. This album’s recording sessions began in the Bahamas, where the band recorded instrumental “sections” as long loops born out of improvisations. This communal means of recording was favored by African musician Fela Kuti, whose 1973 album Afrodisiac was purportedly a major influence. Following these sessions, Byrne and the band returned to the US, where they built songs out of these loops. Byrne’s vocals and various overdubbed parts (solos from avant-garde guitarist Adrian Belew, backing vocals from Byrne, Eno and Nona Hendryx, horns from Jon Hassell) were added next.

Despite these piecemeal production techniques, Remain In Light doesn’t feel insular or as if its participants are trapped in the studio; one only needs to hear (on the album The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads) or see (in the concert film Stop Making Sense) these songs in a live context to understand how well they translate as performances. The first side of the record, in particular, nearly plays as one continuous intoxicating groove over three distinct tracks. After “Born Under Punches” fades out, “Crosseyed and Painless” picks right up where the first song left off, only at a quicker tempo and with a slightly more straightforward melody. Brutally direct verses (Byrne’s first lyrics are a clipped, “Lost / my / shape!”) alternate with a dreamily sung chorus, while Byrne’s nervous, buttoned-up rap solo drives the song nearly as much as its cowbell, which is fierce enough for Christopher Walken producing Blue Oyster Cult. Even faster, “The Great Curve” careens on by but not too rapidly for you to take in all of the interlocking vocal parts, Belew’s two demented solos and Byrne’s enthusiastic proclamation that “The world moves on a woman’s hips,” as if this is something he just figured out and can’t wait to share with anyone who’ll listen. Fortunately, the mood the band has built up at this point is so charged and practically utopian, we’ll listen to anything he says.

As with Eno’s Before and After Science, this album has an upbeat first side, followed by a slower second side—the only difference being that Remain In Light comes down far more gradually. Side two begins with “Once In A Lifetime” which retains the danceable tempo and one-chord repetition of the preceding tracks. Byrne offers platitudes that begin with variations of the words “You may find/ask/tell yourself,” while a mélange of rhythms and electronic noise pulsates behind him. As usual, he speaks/sings in a cadence that resembles no one else in pop, but here he’s at his most relatable: who wouldn’t identify with such considerations as “Same as it ever was…” or even “My God, what have I done?!” Simultaneously, how many people have heard them in a pop song before? Even though it missed the Billboard Hot 100, it’s arguably the band’s most popular, iconic hit—thanks to its innovative, Byrne-centric music video, which would play incessantly on MTV throughout the 1980s.

“Houses In Motion” carries on the shuffling, mid-tempo groove of “Once In A Lifetime”, only with a noticeably rubbery-funk bottom, spoken verses and a staccato yet easily singable chorus. It’s the album’s simplest song, yet there’s still a lot going on within it. Every instrument, from the rhythm guitar to Hassell’s horns gets its own catchy, fully audible riff and yet not one thing really dominates (like Belew’s earlier solos): everything ultimately enhances the whole gestalt rather than calling specific attention to itself. Musically, “Seen And Not Seen” could be its sequel, only the balance has shifted dramatically. The handclap-heavy percussion is now way up front in the mix, while Byrne’s entirely spoken vocal is barely present in the background. Even with headphones and the volume turned high, I can barely make out all of his words, which consist of a hazy narrative about a man who wishes to change his appearance based on what he sees “in movies, on TV, in magazines and in books.” It’s an odd but significant song in the album’s sequence, the moment where Byrne moves from jubilance and wide-eyed wonder to looking inward and increasingly regarding the outside world with suspicion.

The tempo slackens noticeably on “Listening Wind”, an echo-laden, dub-reggae lament. Byrne returns to singing, but his vocal is still somewhat buried in the mix. The chorus has an actual chord change (!) but you barely notice it over the overarching melancholic din. Still, the track is positively giddy when compared to album-closer “The Overload”. An attempt to ape gloomy British outfit Joy Division (without the band ever having heard their music), it ominously drones on at a snail’s pace for over six minutes. Totally smoothing out the rhythmic intensity of the preceding songs, it would seem like a disruptive outlier on Remain In Light if it didn’t come at the very end. Even taking into account the album’s ongoing tonal progression from joy to despair, its presence still feels unexpected—as if Byrne, grasping at enlightenment, nearly reaching it on “Once In A Lifetime”, lost hold of it and ended up here. The song’s title, then, could refer to the embarrassment of riches laden throughout the album’s earlier songs. Remain In Light may eerily dribble to a close, but that’s because Talking Heads always took their idealism seriously, knowing full well realism was as essential a component to it as day is to night. This album is where they discovered a sound that allowed both their idealism and realism to flower most fully and almost seamlessly intertwine.

Up next: our first double album.

“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”:

 

“Once In A Lifetime”:

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