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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings And Food


1) Thank You For Sending Me An Angel; 2) With Our Love; 3) The Good Thing; 4) Warning Sign; 5) The Girls Want To Be With The Girls; 6) Found A Job; 7) Artists Only; 8) I'm Not In Love; 9) Stay Hungry; 10) Take Me To The River; 11) The Big Country.

General verdict: In a perfect world, THIS would have been the ultimate breakup album. After all, if you're not in love anyway, you can never truly break up.

Almost half of the songs on the Heads' sophomore album can already be found among the heavily bootlegged 1975 demos — typically, this is not a very good sign, but in the Heads' case, this merely meant that their artistic progression from 1977 to 1978 was not as phenomenal as it would be over the next two years. Even the title is somewhat self-conscious: it can be debated if «buil­dings and food» were indeed the primary topic of '77, but «more songs about...» is telling anyway. There are plenty of additional subtle nuances here that the debut record lacked (many of them certainly due to the presence of Brian Eno as co-producer and guest musician), but generally, it all falls under the «if you liked X, you will like Y» scenario.

I remember that upon first hearing the record, almost everything on it felt like one long, frantic, shaking, wobbling, paranoid funk jam, with insignificant variations in tempo and tonalities; only the much slower, soulful-ler ʽTake Me To The Riverʼ stood out from among minutes that felt like hours while David Byrne was letting himself be gradually and sadistically electrocuted. Repeated listens have altered this perception, of course; these songs owe as much to The Beatles as they do to James Brown — it is not for nothing, after all, that ʽThank You For Sending Me An Angelʼ opens the record with the galloping pattern of ʽGet Backʼ. It is simply that the manners and the antics of the Heads are so uniform that no matter whether they are leaning more towards pop or towards funk, it all ends up sounding like pages from David Byrne's diary.

Which, for that matter, starts out at the beginning of days, since on ʽThank Youʼ David pretty much assumes the role of Adam, freshly introduced to Eve: "Oh baby, you can walk, you can talk just like me... you'll walk in circles around me". If there is a better symbol of Talking Heads as the beginners of a new era — not just in music, but in human perception — if there is one, I can­not be bothered to go look for it, since this grand opening suits me just fine. Its message and its function are not that different from ʽUh-Oh, Love Comes To Townʼ, though: both songs are fairly upbeat and superficially optimistic eyes-wide-opened looks at the opposite sex — followed by miles upon miles of second thoughts, doubts, panics, penances, phobias, rejections, and whatever else there is in store for the tense and nervous psycho killer.

Indeed, the lyrics on this album are so good that it is easy to fall into the trap of simply discussing Byrne's views on relations and sexes instead of paying much attention to the music. Therefore, perhaps it is better to bring up, first and foremost, the case of ʽStay Hungryʼ — a song whose words probably describe the terrifying aspects of physical contact, but only really serve as an introduction to a lengthy funk jam, with Byrne and Harrison locking themselves into man-machine guitar grooves and Eno providing ghostly ambience with a synthesizer part that may have as well been stockpiled from his own sessions for Before And After Science. There is an ominous, scary effect in this recording that is hard to find in more traditional funk music — a bit of a hand-of-doom manifesting itself through the players, almost as if they felt they had fallen upon the pulse of life itself, which energizes them to no end but also scares the shit out of them. And Eno — Gandalf the Grey of the musical world — is just the perfect companion for them on this voyage: his creepy ambient textures are just the kind of imaginary ghosts that the Byrne character would be likely to be haunted by most of the time. Even when he is trying to make love to his girlfriend, because, as he knows, "the girls want to be with the girls" and physical contact between man and woman is odd by nature.

See, even now I am still sliding over to the lyrics, but what can I do? ʽThe Girls Want To Be With The Girlsʼ is arguably one of the greatest and most complex commentaries on the male/female issue in the history of pop music: "there is just no love / when there's boys and girls", he con­cludes, making the song into more of a psychological lecture set to music than an actual song (though not before lifting the melody of the Kinks' ʽTired Of Waiting For Youʼ for the main theme, which makes the whole thing even more ironic). If you need specific examples, you have ʽFound A Jobʼ, where a boy and a girl are only able to «save» their relationship by working together on storylines for TV shows — a concept as ridiculous in nature as is the song's music in sound (the instrumental coda is like trying to play a funk groove and a steady military march at the exact same time — the awesome weirdness of this is particularly well illustrated by the band's body movements in the Stop Making Sense video). "So think about this little scene, apply it to your life / If your work isn't what you love, then something isn't right" — right on, brother.

The greatest artists are those for whom no cows are sacred, and in between terror-funky de­pictions of his non-sex life, Byrne also finds the time to insert a poke or two at modern stereo­types, including his brothers in artistry: "I don't have to prove... that I am creative!" (ʽArtists Onlyʼ) — and at ancient stereotypes, including peace and happiness of rural life. I mean, you might think that after having so many breakdowns against the background of urban life, Byrne might really take after Ray Davies in his love for the village green, but no dice: "I wouldn't live there if you paid me / I wouldn't live like that, no siree!" is his proclamation on ʽThe Big Countryʼ, a song radically different in structure, finishing the herky-jerky album on a slower, steadier, more traditional note with a lyrical slide guitar-driven melody. It is not a great song (the slide hook is nice, but gets very monotonous and repetitive after a while; Jerry Harison is, after all, no George Harrison, and I have not only waited a long time to say that, but also found a perfect pretext for saying it) — not a great song, but a perfectly placed conclusion to an album that is all about urban paranoia, yet ultimately refuses to seek refuge from it in any imaginary, hypothetical pastoral paradises.

But before we make a final slide across the ʽThe Big Countryʼ, there is ʽTake Me To The Riverʼ, one of the (three) biggest singles in Talking Heads history and the song that more or less put them on the map for everybody who did not have the privilege of being a CBGB resident. The funny thing is that Heads recorded their version almost at the same time as Foghat, Levon Helm, and Bryan Ferry — but the public took to theirs (though, allegedly, only the Heads released theirs as a single rather than an LP track). Perhaps it was because they found the perfect tempo for it, so that Tina's bass line could be that perfect restraining anchor. More likely, because Al Green's complex message of love, sin, and redemption fits right in with Byrne's idea of love as an illusion and a virtual impossibility. Green's song was a bit of an enigma from the start — it is never explained whether the protagonist is baptized in love or against love — and it kinda remains that way in Byrne's paranoid interpretation. Perhaps more importantly, it is the first explicit link between Talking Heads and the old African-American tradition, and, even more importantly, it is not an attempt at a modernistic deconstruction, but a melodically loyal cover — a symbolic acceptance of the old values and the old issues that remain as valid for this new artistic age as they had ever been. (Of course, the Heads were not unique in this acceptance; but the sound of '77 was such a radical departure that my guess is, they made a very conscious move to include ʽTake Me To The Riverʼ on this album just to reassure the world that they were not, in fact, a bunch of aliens. Or if they were, at least they were aliens that spent some time in the church of Al Green).

It only goes to show how phenomenal this band was, really, if I find nothing but good things to say about an album that I very rarely listen to — partly because, as in the case of its predecessor, almost all of the songs here sound much better live, and partly because so few of them are truly outstanding. In less than a year, Talking Heads would go all ambitiously epic on our asses; here, they were still learning the ropes and keeping a relatively low profile. But just like the «teen Beatles», the «teen Heads» have a special charm (or, probably, anti-charm would be a better term) whose anti-innocence would no longer show on subsequent records; and from that point of view, more songs about buildings and food are always welcome. Even if by «buildings» they mean «inability to form a loving relationship with anything that is not made out of wood or stone».

1 comment:

  1. I’ve always had mixed feelings about this one, feeling that the songs were overall a step down in quality from the debut and that the band had not quite figured out how to integrate their style with spooky Eno electro-ambience to the best possible effect yet. That being said, Big Country is one of the best songs the band would ever do. The resolution on the chorus- ‘I wouldn’t live there... if you PAID. ME. TOOOOO!!!’- is one of the most cathartic moments in the TH catalogue.

    I agree that in some respects the entire sensibility of this album, and maybe of the Heads generally, is a novel approach to exploring the by-now well-worn theme of urban alienation. The quirky repudiation of cliched pastoral solutions definitely drives that home.