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Friday, January 11, 2019

Talking Heads: Speaking In Tongues


1) Burning Down The House; 2) Making Flippy Floppy; 3) Girlfriend Is Better (For Alex Alex); 4) Slippery People; 5) I Get Wild / Wild Gravity; 6) Swamp; 7) Moon Rocks; 8) Pull Up The Roots; 9) This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody).

General verdict: A gentle, but satisfactory, funk-poppy slide off the heights of Remain In Light — fortunately, still crazy after all these years.

Whether or not Talking Heads, under certain circumstances, could have made another Remain In Light — or, more accurately, an album that would dare go even further than Remain In Light, thrusting the gates to another musical dimension wide open — is an open question. What they did instead was take a break and focus on their solo projects — and when they got back together, things would never be the same again. The level-A magic was gone; the big bird flew the coop.

Not that Speaking In Tongues is a bad record, by any means. Taken on a song-by-song basis, it is perfectly consistent and can still be safely counted as one of the best pop albums of 1983. But its ambitions were thoroughly different. Without Eno, without Belew, featuring a large variety of first-rate funk and electropop session players, Speaking In Tongues is no longer a musical link between archaic primal forces and futuristic projections, as was Remain In Light, but rather something that I would simply call Intelligent Dance Music, if only that term werenʼt hijacked by a specific brand of electronic artists a decade later.

One could chalk this up to the personal influence of David Byrne and his monopolizing the group, but unless we are willing to include footage from Stop Making Sense as evidence of that, one could equally well say that there is plenty of Tom Tom Club influence in Speaking In Tongues just as well. A better supposition would be that the band had a «burnout» of sorts, or, even more simple, realized that Remain In Light took things too far in terms of complexity — after all, they would not want to take half of Africa with them on tour every single time they would have to promote new material. So Speaking In Tongues leaves in and further develops all the funk themes they had introduced, but largely abandons the costly overdubs, the imposing atmospheres, and the cosmic implications of its predecessor. This is their «lightest» album since 1978, and, all the «why donʼt you do something greater than great?» quibbles aside, they had certainly earned a right to make a light album.

They certainly earned a right for some serious commercial success as well: ʽBurning Down The Houseʼ sounds very much like an intentional, hard-pressed, clenched-teeth effort to make the charts, and make them they did — the only time that the band made it into the US Top 10. The song has a party groove to it: only the most devoted fan would distinguish some of Davidʼs trademark paranoia in the lyrics, vocals, and musical arrangement. The rest would just take the song as an irresistible invitation to dance — even despite the oddly ululating acoustic fade-in that opens the song on a weird, suspenseful note before it bursts into an all-out dance craze. There is no other song in the bandʼs catalog that comes as close to being an unbridled celebration of the joie de vivre, something that is even reflected in the live performance on Stop Making Sense, with every single player just goofing off without a second thought.

However, anyone caught off guard with that opening explosion and terrified that the Heads might have crudely sold out to cheap «poptimism» will most likely be reassured as soon as ʽBurning Down The Houseʼ fades out, giving way to more familiar territory — social awkwardness, fear of life, perception of everything around as potential problems, and, at the end of it all, a faint glimpse of possible salvation: this time, openly stated in the lyrics and reinforced by the music. ʽBurning Down The Houseʼ is a song for everybody; everything else on Speaking In Tongues is for registered members of the David Byrne Society.

Return to familiar spiritual / atmospheric territory does not mean, however, that Speaking In Tongues is a complete musical retread to the rhythms and textures of 1977–78. For one thing, the Heads are no longer a minimalist four-piece band: keyboards, intermittently played by all four members as well as guest musicians, are by now an absolutely integral part of the sound, though (fortunately, I would say) they are still somewhat conservatively relegated to the function of offering a countermelody or ambient decorations. For another thing, the rhythms and riffs are very strongly influenced by the contemporary electropop scene — everything from Prince to late-era Funkadelic — and this results in a slight simplification of the classic Heads sound, with the Byrne/Harrison guitar interplay no longer serving as the focal point; even on such relatively uncluttered tracks as ʽMoon Rocksʼ it is more about the rhythmic groove itself than the melodic effect generated by the interweaving of rhythmic grooves.

Nevertheless, the songwriting talent and the work ethics of the band are still very much in place. Even if the songs are, on the whole, less complex and more accessible, they are all catchy, odd, and true to the bandʼs spirit; also, even as the music gets simpler, Byrneʼs lyrics grow more and more cryptic as time goes by, so each specific song is best described in question form — is ʽMaking Flippy Floppyʼ about personality disorders? is ʽGirlfriend Is Betterʼ discussing woman problems or is it about delirium? is ʽSlippery Peopleʼ a political rant or is it about hallucinogens? these are all stimulating things to think about as you give in to all of these songsʼ rhythmic temptations and slowly begin to realize that Tinaʼs bass may have surreptitiously crept in to occupy the place of top-crucial-instrument throughout the record (Tom Tom Club strikes again!).

Eventually, you might find yourself in danger of feeling that all the songs kind of gravitate towards each other and cluster in a single monotonous mess, as it may have happened on More Songs. To prevent this, the album breaks up the proceedings with ʽSwampʼ, an unexpected piece of 4/4 blues-rock that could be construed as somewhat of a tribute to John Lee Hooker and all them other murky dark blues guys from long ago ("now let me tell you a story / the devil has a plan..." is a pretty telling commencement) — except that, somehow, it also manages to sound like a Teutonic war march (particularly in the "hi hi hi hi hi" chorus), so... more like John Lee Hitler to me (I always half-expect to see Byrne sporting a moustache for his Stop Making Sense performance of this number). Of course, it only becomes creepy when you begin overthinking it, but the advantage of Talking Heads is that their music deserves overthinking more often than not.

Even the discomfort of ʽSwampʼ, however, does not properly purge the feeling that the band has somewhat sold out to the good times — not that thereʼs anything inherently wrong with this, not if the required optimistic coda to the album is represented by a song as charming as ʽThis Must Be The Placeʼ (with a slight feel of humble embarrassment, subtitled ʽNaive Melodyʼ). This one shows David giving in to sentimentalism, which in the past was either suppressed or played out ironically (ʽThe Big Countryʼ); but he redeems himself with a vocal flow that smoothly goes from energetically-passionate to soft croon, and with one of the most unforgettably delivered opening lines in the history of sentimental pop ("home is where I want to be" — uttered in the precise intonation of somebody who has just returned from a long, tiresome journey to the end of this funky world). Arguably, the beauty of this song can be best understood in the context of Stop Making Sense (the lamp! the lamp!), but here, too, it forms a wonderfully placating conclusion to the overall herky-jerky experience — a far cry from the unresolved doom-laden suspense of ʽThe Overloadʼ that left us cliff-hanginʼ at the end of Remain In Light.

In the end, there is this sneaky lingerinʼ feeling that on Speaking In Tongues, the Heads are, every now and then, dipping into somebody elseʼs tongue — playing too much of the general game rather than focusing strictly on their own one. Intentionally or not, this is their first record where they are more trend-followers than trend-setters. But sooner or later, it happens to every­body anyway, and classy, intelligent, entertaining trend-following is a cool and rare art in itself, so here you are with another respectable chapter in the history of a band which, arguably, had already earned twice as much respect as most of the competition. 


  1. Well, 1983 could be labelled as a transitional year and the end of the last genuine revolution in rock music. After punk, new wave, postpunk, Brian Eno, non blues based hard rock, etc., the 80s scenario was taken by overproduced synth pop, formulaic pop rock, hair metal and dance music. Until Seattle appears. But that was more refreshing than revolutionary. Talking Heads, after all, were trying to adapt with dignity.

    1. The Seattle music scene did not burst into existence overnight with the release of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." It was a gradual build up of an underground scene throughout the 80s, with grunge being an amalgamation of punk, indie, and even metal influences.

    2. Yes. That is why it was not revolutionary. Just refreshing and welcome.

  2. Thank you George for coming back. !

  3. I cannot approach your level of eloquence and analysis when it comes to appreciating albums, but I think this record just grows and grows as time goes by. Especially that first side. I was 16 when this album came out. I probably got it from the Columbia Record House mail subscription (if anybody remembers that) and played the tape until it wore out. It still, now, on Spotify, sounds groundbreaking! I love this album, every song on it. But especially Girlfriend Is Better. One of my favorites of all time!