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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Talking Heads: Remain In Light

1) Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On); 2) Crosseyed And Painless; 3) The Great Curve; 4) Once In A Lifetime; 5) Houses In Motion; 6) Seen And Not Seen; 7) Listening Wind; 8) The Overload.

General verdict: One little paranoid Scotsman in the lap of so many terrifying African gods.

[This is a slightly revised version of an older review in the abandoned "Important Album Series", from June 26, 2016].

Even after the major critical success of Fear Of Music, Talking Heads had little chance of turning into a household name — in fact, this would not properly happen until they'd record ʻBurning Down The Houseʼ in 1983, a track that made all the difference because, finally, ordinary people could dance to it. However, the first three albums firmly established them as not only one of America's most unique and innovative bands, but also one of its finest New Wave-themed European exports. Instead of reggae, which somehow turned into a primary point of attraction for so many European New Wave acts, they had put their money on R&B and funk —capitalizing particularly on the nervous / paranoid associations of the funk groove, so that it could be flawlessly integrated with David Byrne's psychotype. The peak of this approach was reached on Fear Of Music, an album that for most bands, would be impossible to top — in fact, most bands would probably not even set themselves such a goal, and instead just stay forever happy after having mastered such an intricate formula.

The one big advantage of Talking Heads was that they happened to be interested in music as much as they were interested in art — that is, from a perspective where we do not simply regard «music» as a subcategory of «art», but instead associate the former with technique and texture, and the latter with symbolic / philosophical meaning. The first three albums by the Heads featured some very fine music, but most of it was very much overridden with Byrne's personality: when you think of those records, probably the first thing that comes to mind is his vivid character impersonation rather than, for instance, the (actually no less impressive) polyrhythmic guitar interplay between Byrne and Harrison. The band did have a unique sound, and it was never against making it more and more unique by transcending its «rockist» limitations, but it would not be too inaccurate to state that most listeners probably wondered what that plural marker was really doing at the end of Talking Heads.

At the same time, interest in «world music» (understood as «predominantly white European or American pop/rock musicians appropriating elements of other musical traditions full-scale — for artistic, humanitarian, and educational needs only, no personal financial gain whatsoever!») seemed to be on the rise among all sorts of audiences, largely because it was high time music did some more cross-breeding to prevent from stagnating — and Talking Heads, who had already once dabbled seriously and successfully in crossing real African (rather than Afro-American) music with rock on ʻI Zimbraʼ, were more than happy to explore that interest. For one thing, at a time when some of the band members had begun expressing discontent about Byrne's vision monopolizing the band's career, it gave them all a chance to democratically expand beyond a Byrnocentric world — by making The Byrne Identity merely one of the integral elements of the process, maybe a bit more equal than the others, but not crucially so. Byrne himself had made the first step by working with Brian Eno on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, where he had learned to tame and restrain his personality, and so, by mid-1980, the stage was set for one of the strongest concentrations of talent ever assembled in one place.

Indeed, for the Remain In Light sessions, as well as for the ensuing tour to promote the album, Talking Heads actually had to become The Talking Head Consortium, adding: Brian Eno (who, in addition to retaining his production duties, also played select bass and keyboard parts); Adrian Belew (crazyass lead guitar beyond the capacities/imagination of either Byrne or Harrison); Jon Hassell (trumpets, horns, solid knowledge of world music theory); Robert Palmer and José Rossy (percussion); and the illustrious Nona Hendryx (backing vocals). Some of the songs actually give the impression of a much larger ensemble of musicians, but that is due largely to Eno's masterful overdubbing (although for the ensuing tour they still managed to get away with a nine-piece ensemble in order to reproduce the album in most, if not all, its sonic density).

In their basic form, the tracks were originally laid down in Nassau (Compass Point Studios), not too far away from Jamaica and Haiti where Chris and Tina spent a holiday socializing with voodoo and reggae people while Harrison, at the same time, was producing an album for Nona Hendryx and Byrne was recording My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with Eno — the same kind of merging collective profit with individual pleasure that preceded the Sgt. Pepper sessions in late 1966/early 1967, to use a perfectly appropriate reference. However, the album turned out to be even more of an «assembly» thing than Sgt. Pepper: Byrne's vocals were added separately, as were Nona's and, finally, Hassell's brass overdubs. What you are hearing on the final product is not at all the sound of a tight, well-drilled band (which the Heads certainly were), but the results of a tremendously complex cut-and-paste procedure, which makes it all the more astonishing how they were ultimately capable of transferring it all to the stage with perfect mutual coordination (Talking Heads Live In Rome is a terrific DVD from the tour that is every bit as worth seeing as is the far better known Stop Making Sense — at least, for the regular fan). In any case, Eno's contribution to the record is every bit as important as George Martin's was for Sgt. Pepper — not a single subsequent Heads album would boast such a multi-layered sound.

Once released, the album was an immediate critical hit, but it did not sell that much compared to the band's previous output: ʻOnce In A Lifetimeʼ charted fairly high in Europe, but not in the homeland, and the LP showed only a very modest rise in the charts compared to Fear Of Music — apparently, the strange new sounds were still way too incomprehensible (and disturbing) for the sitting majority and far too complex for the dancing minority to make a wave-like impact. It is also a matter of debate precisely how influential this record has been: it did not exactly invent «worldbeat» as such, and it still had too much of that strong Talking Head essence in it to be properly imitable — probably the closest followers would be Discipline-era King Crimson with the same Adrian Belew manning one of the guitars, but King Crimson never went for that African / Haitian voodooistic angle, and vocals in general were nowhere near as important for KC as they were for the Heads here. But one thing is for certain: Remain In Light was perceived as a major event in music when it appeared, and its classic status has not become even faintly dimmed with the passing of time.

The very first thing you might feel, as the poly-pulse of ʻBorn Under Punchesʼ is fully established, is that proverbial Jungle Sensation — the song's multiple guitar and keyboard bits symbolizing all the friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) tongueless creatures of said Jungle and the tribal woos and hoos representing its humanoid inhabitants. Of course, it is not a real jungle: with Byrne at the wheel, it is more of an allegory for an Urban Jungle, where tribal Africa is taken as an allegory for the general hustle-bustle of life in a perfectly modern industrialized society. But at the same time, nothing about Remain In Light is truly «chaotic»: all the polyrhythms, all the multi-layered vocal overdubs are strictly coordinated and disciplined — in fact, Byrne's singing / talking / screaming is pretty much the only element that keeps on disrupting the rigorous patterns, and so the whole album (or, at least, most of it) can be viewed as the solitary hysterical madness of an individual helplessly caught in the grinding cogs of perfectly tuned machines (not exactly an artistic breakthrough for these guys). Although, admittedly, they are tuned so perfectly that getting caught up in them might sound like an exciting proposal.

The first three tracks here are probably the single most thrilling, tension-mounting sequence in the band's entire catalog: ʻBorn Under Punchesʼ sets up The Jungle, ʻCrosseyed And Painlessʼ introduces The Panic, and finally ʻThe Great Curveʼ descends into utter ferocious emotional hell. The first of the songs is cleverly subtitled ʻThe Heat Goes Onʼ, where «heat» may (and should) refer at once to jungle heat and government heat — and where the weird, lilting, sounding-like-nothing-else-at-the-time guitar solos by Adrian Belew are somewhere in the middle between the sounds of merrily, but mechanically chirping birds in the trees and the sounds of phones, ticker tapes, alarm sirens, automatons, and whatever other analog and digital contraptions have been invented by cruel humanity to confuse and enslave the poor human.

But despite the colorful, bedazzling sound, it is still merely an introduction to the "sharp as a knife" sound of ʻCrosseyed And Painlessʼ, where Tina's bass actually does sound like a cutting knife, making one careful, but brutal incision after another — again, the whole thing is either a relentless run-through-the-jungle or a grinding, never-ending musical lobotomy performed on the protagonist as he is "still waiting, still waiting", but there's really nothing to wait for because it's already over, to the mock-lullaby of "there was a line, there was a formula..." sounding like the equivalent of a good dose of sleeping gas to help ease the pain. This stuff works on so many levels of perception that it is almost scary.

What is scarier is that next is ʻThe Great Curveʼ, which makes ʻCrosseyed And Painlessʼ sound like a kiddie dance round the mulberry bush by comparison. The call-and-response dialog between the ringing guitar line and the answering bass is worth gold alone (the dark and the light? two sides of the coin? the optimist and the pessimist?), but when you have all those different vocal melodies gradually laid on top of them, one by one (useless trivia detail — I always heard one of those not as "night must fall, dark-ER, dark-ER", but rather as "night must fall, dark pearl, dark pearl!", which sounds way cooler to me), the result is a kind of sonic bliss / sonic nightmare that must be heard to be believed — and it actually worked live as well (but maybe not nearly as effective when stripped of Eno's supernatural production)! And in between that, you get some of the craziest solos ever devised by Adrian Belew — yet, believe it or not, they sound like moments of respite, allowing you to actually catch your breath between all those rounds of vocal basketball. And Jon Hassell's brass overdubs? And "the world moves on a woman's hips"? This is one of the greatest songs ever written, and maybe the best ever use of vocal polyphony in a rock setting, period. This is not really a Talking Heads song — it's a Mother Nature song (feat. Talking Heads), capturing Mother in one of her not-too-pretty tantrum states.

It is, consequently, not surprising that I have always found the other songs of the album allocated on the other side of ʽThe Great Curveʼ, right past the peak; nothing surpasses the fury of the opening three, and, in fact, despite the obvious greatness of ʻOnce In A Lifetimeʼ, this is clearly the first (and only) song here that fully returns us to the well-accustomed Talking Heads idiom: a somewhat tame funk rhythm guitar instead of the maddening polyrhythms, exclusively male vocals, and a lead singer once again at the forefront of things. I always used to think that ʻOnce In A Lifetimeʼ did not really mix too well with the rest of the album, that it might have been inserted there just because somebody felt a need to have a «proper» Talking Heads single for commercial purposes — well, I mean, it probably was. Which does not make it any less great as a great Talking Heads song (but not a Mother Nature song this time) — and has anybody ever come up with a more friendly, optimistic, philosophically ambiguous song on the subject of ʻNobody Knows You When You're Down And Outʼ, anyway? I don't really think so.

The second side of the album almost inevitably pales in comparison, just because all of the strategy has already been laid out on Side A, and most of the brutal energy has been expended. ʻHouses In Motionʼ does one more good job of building up some «jungle-style paranoia» with clever parallel alignment of reggae and funk guitars, but then we largely get mellow — first, with arguably the record's single weakest number, ʻSeen And Not Seenʼ (atmospheric, but too much keyboard wiggling from Eno, too many talking vocals and not enough hooks), then with the album's only formal «ballad», ʻListening Windʼ, and finally, with its most «Goth-style», «Joy-Division-like» coda, ʻThe Overloadʼ. It is clear why none of these three songs were performed in concert: compared to the lively, if scary, «dance» numbers of Side A, these are slow, subtle, a nasty smoky hangover after the devilish party, something, perhaps, to be played only after a non-stop 12-hour rave party to calm down the nerves of a hysterical crowd. Their charm will probably become more obvious with time, but they do serve their proper function: after playing out the storm, you have to say a few words about the calm, even if it is only relative — ʻThe Overloadʼ, with Eno's pulsating synths and whirring engines and industrial hums, does sound like the equipment could blow apart at any minute, yet it builds up its tension and takes it away with it in a fade-out, rather than ending things with a nuclear blast or something.

Because, you see, Remain In Light is not the announcement of a catastrophe — like most of the band's output, it is a warning, and no other Talking Heads album ends on a more alarming note than Remain In Light. (Is it a coincidence that the band's commercial fortunes only really improved when they began ending their records with shiny optimistic instead of depressing tunes, like ʻThis Must Be The Placeʼ?).

On the whole, the best thing that can be said about the album is that it works equally well as a collection of hooky individual songs (the choruses, the riffs, the polyrhythms — there are so many earworms here, you could catch yourself a boatload of earfish with them) and as a cohesive conceptual thematic suite with a rational internal structure: nervous-hysterical build-up, post-nervous depressed wind-down, and a perfect synthesis of native African stylistics and the Western civilization pop tradition in terms of execution, and by «perfect» I mean one that sounds smooth and fluent and has a reasonable intellectual symbolic interpretation at the same time. You can simply enjoy the hell out of it, or you can subject it to musicological analysis, you can decode and explain its philosophy, and it will all make perfect sense.

Of course, few albums are perfect, and although there is no «filler» as such on Remain In Light (every song has its purpose and loyally fulfills it), every once in a while a song might overstay its welcome, or get a little too lost in atmospheric beeps and bleeps to remember about preserving the hookline. The grooves on Side A are so tight, powerful, and mesmerizing that each of them could go on for 15 minutes and I wouldn't have a care in the world; but ʻThe Overloadʼ should probably have been at least a minute shorter, and I have already indicated that ʻSeen And Not Seenʼ is too much special effects and not enough melody (could it actually be left over from the sessions for My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts? It rather sounds like it belongs on that album, what with all the isolated keyboard pings and spoken vocals). But on the other hand, it is precisely because of all the risks, experiments, and outside collaborators that Remain In Light avoids the common flaws of most other Heads albums —such as they used to be when most of More Songs About Buildings And Food, for instance, used to sound like one interminable macro-song. This is definitely different.

I do believe that the album is a stunning achievement in the history of modern music — easily the best record of 1980 and, who knows, a good contender even for best album of a decade that had barely started when it came out. It really pointed out a brand new direction that very few (if any) other artists would manage to follow successfully, just because it takes a great deal of time, talent, and tact to properly re-integrate modern musical genres with their «ancient» predecessors. Most importantly, the biggest flaw of «world music» is that it tends to be very pretentious, commanding you to revere and admire it just because it liberally acknowledges the musical merits of our cultural ancestors and faraway brothers. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not. The genius of Talking Heads here is that they were the first to show that «world music» can be perfectly relevant and vital in a completely modern setting — not a museum artefact, made bright and shiny by means of neon lights and computer-assisted simulations, but a real artistic weapon that can be used to describe the conflicting, turublent emotions of a contemporary, urbanized, Western (or Eastern, or Northern, or Southern, etc.) human being. Too often, musical synthesis is being carried out just for the sake of synthesizing — as in, we get bored, we put together something that has never been put together before (remember Monty Python's Society For Putting Things On Top Of Other Things?). Remain In Light avoids that trap and, in doing so, remains every bit as vital, inspiring, and relevant today as it was when it first came out.


  1. This review seems to imply that "Once in a Lifetime" is the last track on Side A; it's actually the first track on Side B, which I think makes the sequencing work much better.

  2. For any fans of this album who didn't know, Remain in Light was covered recently by Beninese artist Angelique Kidjo. I think, at the very least, that it's an interesting listen.

    "Born Under Punches"

    1. One of my favourite albums covered by one of my favourite African artists - sounds like a plan, thanks Airrick!

  3. Only the first half of this album could be considered as a masterpiece. The second half ruins it.
    So, no, it is not a masterpiece.

  4. The musical merits of Side A are overpraised here - polyrhythms, perfectly timed synth noises - you can layer it all you want, but it is the trademark Byrne paranoid delivery that makes these songs (never mind making them TH songs) listenable. Those wild Belew solos can be played elsewhere and would fit in there and you could take them out of here and not miss much. For song constructionists, it is Side B that rules. And I wish you would stop referring to the 2nd album as a macro-song! Not true at all. Yes, some of the transitions are breathless, that's all.

  5. I am starting to become convinced that you are the greatest music reviewer on the planet. I am not joking, every single review you write is immaculate, especially this review. I love Remain In Light, probably my second favorite Talking Heads album behind Fear of Music.