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Saturday, February 9, 2019

Talking Heads: Little Creatures


1) And She Was; 2) Give Me Back My Name; 3) Creatures Of Love; 4) The Lady Donʼt Mind; 5) Perfect World; 6) Stay Up Late; 7) Walk It Down; 8) Television Man; 9) Road To Nowhere.

General verdict: Talking Heads in their "We donʼt want no syncopation" phase — perfectly acceptable for those wanting to taste a dish of pop hooks sautéed in David Byrneʼs artistic philosophy.

And here it comes — the infamous «sellout pop» album. Actually, it is funny that some people still vaguely remember Little Creatures as the point where Talking Heads «sold out», because the album charted lower than Speaking In Tongues (though it did sell more copies in the long run), and none of its singles were as successful as ʽBurning Down The Houseʼ. The entire sell-out idea seems to be mainly rooted in the bandʼs change of style: all of a sudden, the Heads began playing in a much more old-fashioned, conventional, 4/4-based manner, cutting down on all the funkiness and all the electropop and embracing a pop-rock sound that brought their sound much closer to, say, The Pretenders than to, say, Afrika Bambaataa.

It is highly unlikely, however, that this unpredictable change in style had anything to do with the bandʼs commercialism — if anything, this particular sound was drastically out of vogue in 1985, the year of ʽCareless Whisperʼ and ʽLike A Virginʼ. Far more probable is that David simply wanted to try something different for a change, and for a band as consistently innovative and rule-changing as Talking Heads, «radically different» could only mean «old-fashioned». Not nearly as old-fashioned as is sometimes suggested by people who drop the word ʽAmericanaʼ in their description of the album — a few touches of the steel guitar now and there should not mislead you into thinking that Talking Heads are transforming here into The Band or anything. But old-fashioned enough in the sense that the band dares to ask you the question — so can you still be into Talking Heads if we intentionally remove ourselves from the cutting edge?

Actually, the entire message of Little Creatures had already been previewed two years earlier: the album picks up from exactly the same spot where we were left with ʽThis Must Be The Placeʼ. That particular song had both introduced and perfected the tightly relaxed, smoothly rhythmic, joyfully catchy pop vibe that is all over this album — merely one more, and still quite significant, chapter in the life of that one quirky protagonist of the Talking Heads story whom we might call The Byrne City Dweller. As The BCD grows older, and as life eventually forces him to adapt to his uncomfortable and stressful environment, and as he finds more and more ways to cope with himself and everyday life, so does the music become less stressful and paranoid: surprising as it is, Little Creatures is a perfectly organic evolution of the bandʼs sound, and, most importantly, the songs here sound just as sincere as everything that came before. They even begin making more sense — fortunately, just enough for us to be able to understand what is going on, without diving into banalities and platitudes.

In a way, there are certain lyrical and attitude similarities between Little Creatures and the bandʼs debut — back in 1977, the music may have already been funky and energetic, but the baby BCD had only just come into life, and he was looking at this world with a mix of awkwardness, terror, amazement, and sympathy. As time went by, amazement and sympathy were generally taking a back seat to awkwardness and terror, culminating in Fear Of Music. But then something happened to the BCD — he may have started psychotherapy sessions, or gulping down Prozac, or settling down and trying to raise a family, or all of those things at once — and eventually he reclaimed some of that lost innocence, including the ability to perceive not just the grossness and danger, but also the charm and beauty of some of lifeʼs creations. "A woman made a man / A man he made a house / And when they lay together / Little creatures all come out". (If you need a more direct argument, then how about the na-na-naʼs of ʽThe Book I Readʼ making a surprise return as the ooh-ooh-oohʼs of ʽPerfect Worldʼ?).

If there is a problem with all that, it is mainly that we do not see too many signs of Talking Heads, the band, covering the flanks of The Byrne City Dweller. Most of the songs were written by David alone, and although the band members dutifully recorded it all, little about these particular arrangements says that they could not have been made without the participation of Jerry, Tina, or Chris. For sure, as soon as something like, say, the opening chords of ʽWalk It Downʼ makes a punchbag out of you, you can see how it is the same band that did both ʽPsycho Killerʼ and ʽMemories Canʼt Waitʼ — but, truth be told, even ʽWalk It Downʼ is not that dependent on the particular chemistry of this particular rhythm section any more. Nor can we hope to rely on the kindness of strangers: great musicians like Adrian Belew and Bernie Worrell have been replaced by Eric Weissberg, a banjo and steel guitar player who is mainly familiar to bluegrass fans (hence the entire «Americana» thing, even though he is only playing on two tracks and neither of them sounds too «American-ish»).

But mistreating your bandmates is one thing and coming up with bad music is quite another. As it happens, Little Creatures is fully consistent and cohesive — in fact, it could be such a natural and perfect conclusion to the story of The Byrne City Dweller that it almost feels as if the band would go on to outlive its proper age by three years. ʽCreatures Of Loveʼ is the new anthem of our protagonist, followed up by ʽStay Up Lateʼ — two songs that show an odd new interest in procreation and baby care (I first suspected that they might have something to do with Byrneʼs own family, but apparently his daughter was only born in 1989) — and both are charming little pop vignettes that make a lot of sense. Nobody but David can sing the line "we are creatures of love" in a way that suggests "hey you know what? Iʼve been thinking about it lately, and it just came to me that, like, you know, we are not just these strange, smelly, grotesque upright-walking flesh lumps... we, like, have this LOVE inside! Isnʼt that, like, the coolest thing ever? Okay, Iʼm off to write a song about this before I have another panic attack!"

To be sure, there are still occasional small panic attacks scattered throughout this record — most obviously, on ʽTelevision Manʼ, an almost epic-length saga of split personalities that may be the single best example of the «television terror» genre since Bowieʼs ʽTVC15ʼ. But with such a drastic reduction of funkiness and such strong elements of vocal melodicity in the chorus, the music becomes more Kinks than Talking Heads (I could totally see Ray Davies doing a cover of this song — heck, of most of the songs on this album). But when the album is over, it is not them that you will remember the best — more likely, it will be the mysteriously ecstatic hooks of ʽAnd She Wasʼ and ʽThe Lady Donʼt Mindʼ, featuring The Byrne City Dweller in lovestruck mode and his personal muse "drifting through the backyard", "rising up above the earth", "jumping out of the window", and "floating by whenever she wants to"... well, then again, there is really nothing surprising about The BCD developing a butterfly fetish.

If you think that there is an overabundance of romantic notes on the album, you are probably right, but it has been such a long time since Talking Heads wrote proper love songs in significant numbers that surely they would be entitled to indulging themselves — after all, such an important aspect should have never been left in the exclusive ownership of Tom Tom Club — and whatʼs wrong with that, Iʼd like to know, if the hooks are so insane? ʽAnd She Wasʼ is all about ringing guitars and soft bouncy bass rhythms, building up a sunny, dizzy, feather-light atmosphere of a sunny day. ʽThe Lady Donʼt Mindʼ is all about suspenseful string bends and mild jungle-style percussion, cooking up the feel of a slightly thrilling, but harmless mystery. Both songs were excellent choices for singles, even if neither of them charted too high — this musical style was completely out of touch with the trends of 1985.

It wouldnʼt really be Talking Heads, though, if they had not given the album the proverbially ambiguous finale — and so ʽRoad To Nowhereʼ is, on one hand, an anthemic celebratory conclu­sion to the whole experience, with a soul choir to amplify the message and a loud, triumphant galloping rhythm to carry you away into the sunset of the future; on the other hand, "weʼre on a road to nowhere, come on inside" does not exactly feel like the most positive message out there. Half call to action, half bitter satire, it still continues the new trend of ending the record on an emotionally optimistic note, but is more in line with ʽThe Big Countryʼ than ʽThis Must Be The Placeʼ. In other words, behind all the lightness and poppiness of Little Creatures we still see the same old fears and cynical judgements — all you have to do is bring along a slightly more power­ful magnifying glass this time.

I dare say that if you are only into Talking Heads for the musical innovations that they brought into this life, Little Creatures will be a deadly dull experience; not even the strong pop hooks in these songs will save their face for you. But for those who were interested not only in the evolution of the funky melodies as they gradually built up towards the ultimate marriage of the ancient and the modern on Remain In Light, but also in the evolution of David Byrneʼs artistic storytelling, Little Creatures may be just as fun a chapter in that story as any that preceded it. Even if you happen to disagree with his assessments of love and sex. (And I hope you disagree with his assessments of love and sex). 


  1. I always thought "Stay Up Late" was a disturbing account of infant abuse, told from the perspective of the bored, evil slightly older sibling protagonists...

  2. Even if you happen to disagree with his assessments of love and sex. (And I hope you disagree with his assessments of love and sex)

  3. Pity about the album cover really - it's one of a small handful that are so bad that they actually put me off the music within.

  4. Hey, the cover is not that bad - a harmless little surealist painting, nothing too abysmal. REM covers - man, that's another story... Although I like the band, I find most of their covers repulsive as hell.

  5. Interesting to bring up R.E.M. as a comparison. The same outsider artist, Howard Finster, painted both this cover and the one for Reckoning.