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Friday, February 15, 2019

Talking Heads: True Stories


1) Love For Sale; 2) Puzzlinʼ Evidence; 3) Hey Now; 4) Papa Legba; 5) Wild, Wild Life; 6) Radio Head; 7) Dream Operator; 8) People Like Us; 9) City Of Dreams.

General verdict: Not bad as far as ordinary pop-rock albums go, but way too unfocused and old-fashioned for us to understand why it had to have the name "Talking Heads" attached to it.

For all my immense respect towards David Byrne as a multi-faceted artist, and for all my undying admiration towards his body language in Stop Making Sense, I could never be bothered to follow all of his creative activities — here implying that I have not seen the movie True Stories, nor have I heard Sounds From True Stories, the actual soundtrack from the movie, split between Byrneʼs solo takes on some of the songs and incidental music from other artists. This does bring me closer to lots and lots of people, I believe, who only bought True Stories, the album — Talking Headsʼ bona fide sequel to the previous yearʼs Little Creatures — and experienced it without any contextual knowledge. And really, there is nothing about the sound of the album that suggests it should have been a soundtrack. It just sounds like a Talking Heads album — and not a very good Talking Heads album at that.

All right, admittedly, not a very bad Talking Heads album, either. Common consensus pegs True Stories as the absolute nadir of the bandʼs existence; but considering the fact that it came out in 1986, the counter-artistic nightmare year for so many different artists par excellence, it actually seems amazing to me that it does not suffer from too much overproduction, too many cheap synthesizer sounds, too seriously watered-down lyrics, or too many outside cooks (hacks) stirring the pot. If anything, where most of 1986ʼs failures suffered for sounding way too big, the chief flaw of True Stories is its being so frustratingly humble. Little Creatures began the process of transforming the band into a «normal» pop-rock outfit; True Stories finishes the job by making it sound like a simplistic pop-rock outfit.

Indeed, once the somewhat drunk-sounding one-two-three-four count-in has announced ʽLove For Saleʼ (whose very title, taken in the context of 1986, is easier associated with the likes of Bon Jovi than Billie Holiday), more than one listener will probably be taken aback by the flat, loud drum sound and the arena-rock style guitar riff: is this truly a Talking Heads song, or have we accidentally put on another experimental record by KISS? The lyrics seem to be Byrnish all right, but the music owes much more to conventional, old-school blues-rock than anything this band was ever about. The song is not devoid of meaning or catchiness, but the music is just a bit too dumb for the satire to catch on, and Byrneʼs vocals are not quite as effective in the context of this brawny, pub-rockish spirit.

In fact, if you concentrate on stuff like this opener or the albumʼs best known song, ʽWild Wild Lifeʼ, you might begin to wonder if Mr. Byrne has not taken a subtle and twisted liking to the popularity of the hedonistic hair metal scene — twisted, because neither of the songs count as open celebrations of the reckless lifestyle, but both deal with it one way or another. It is as if The Byrne City Dweller, having come to terms with the reality of modern family life, suddenly decided to be The Man, went out to town, got drunk at the local bar and began fraternizing with the local bikers, to the best of his abilities. In fur pyjamas. Itʼs weird all right, but it is not nearly as exciting (and certainly nowhere near as funny) as the description might make it sound.

Turn elsewhere and you will see that another new influence is ska — ʽPuzzling Evidenceʼ and ʽRadio Headʼ have exchanged the funky basslines of old for fast, furious, and monotonous head­bobbing, though I will be the first to admit that both tunes are fun to bob your head to, and the organ / guitar / backing vocals groove of ʽPuzzling Evidenceʼ is pumped out with all the energy and the discipline that we came to expect from the band. ʽRadio Headʼ is also quite sympathetic, though for a song that allegedly gave the name to one of the most depressingly existentialist bands of the late 20th century it is quite surprisingly cheerful and good-natured.

The worst thing about it all, really, is that all of these songs are... just okay. They do not feature any particularly horrendous lapses of taste, and they still prominently show Byrneʼs knack for pop hooks. They are simply not too interesting, and not too exciting compared to everything that the band did before. Had True Stories been recorded by any B-level pop-rock outfit in the 2000s or 2010s, the album might easily have been the highlight of their career. But since this is Talking Heads, all I can say when I listen to something like ʽPapa Legbaʼ is "these are the same guys that did ʽI Zimbraʼ and ʽSlippery Peopleʼ"? Compared to those musical exorcisms, ʽPapa Legbaʼ is a smooth, inoffensive piece of lightweight exotica, with almost elevator muzak-level guitar playing and a vocal performance that could be seen appropriate for the Fifties.

Speaking of the Fifties, though, I might have something there, what with the most sentimental and heartfelt song on the album, ʽPeople Like Usʼ, beginning with the line "in 1950 when I was born, papa couldnʼt afford to buy us much...". In fact, the bandʼs entire line of evolution ever since the triumph of Stop Making Sense had them oddly growing backwards — where in 1977 they were recording stuff that may have been at least four or five years ahead of its time, in 1986 they were making music that might have belonged in the early Seventies or late Sixties. Old hard rock riffs, simple ska patterns, countryfied slide guitars, even a prom night waltz-type serenade (ʽDream Operatorʼ) — and none of this would be too bad if there wasnʼt a certain aura of laziness around it all. Most of the songs just go on for too long, even if not a single one actually goes over six minutes. This is... unpleasant.

In the end, I think, we have no choice but to return to the reality of True Stories as a soundtrack: allegedly, at least some of the songs work better in the context of Byrneʼs movie, where their relative simplicity and old-fashioned nature should theoretically make a fun contrast with the absurdism and sarcasm of the plot and cinematography. But then we remain with the big question of why the hell Byrne had to force the entire band to release this set as a Talking Heads album rather than just stay contented with the movie soundtrack. Knowing David, this could have been an intentional move to piss off his annoying bandmates — or even an intentional move to give the bandʼs reputation a solid shot in the foot. But since the truth is usually boring, it is more likely that nobody just gave that much of a damn; and by 1986, the other band members, despite all their hard feelings for David, were so used to following his directions that they could not have come up with a better plan on their own anyway.


  1. I totally agree. And in my view it was not the only case. Just compare Sting's solo career in the 80s with the achievements of The Police previous work. Even REM, while getting more success, was moving into a more ordinary territory. Other Talking Heads contemporaries were a parody of themselves or separated (The Cars, Blondie). Maybe U2 was the one with a still interesting album (next year, 1987), with a little help from some famous producers. In some way it was a sad period if you take it as the end of the last true classic period for rock music. I strongly believe that the periods 1966 - 1972 and 1977 - 1983 are the most relevant for rock music.

  2. The movie was very good; years ahead of its time in some ways. People didn't get it at the time, but as the years passed it has proven to be prescient too. As for this album, I always felt it has been unfairly slagged. No, it doesn't sound much like the earlier Talking Heads. However, the lyrics are as sharp as ever and any album with "Love For Sale", "Puzzling Evidence", and "Wild Wild Life" on it can't be too bad. "People Like Us" may seem "sentimental and heartfelt", but think about the chorus, which rejects both freedom and justice. I don't know how you got a Kiss comparison from these songs; that seems pretty far off base.

    Also, your weird attacks on 1986 in general, as if there is something almost paranormal about the year, are weird. 1986 was arguably one of the peak years of the Golden Age of indie rock (Talking Heads don't count, because they weren't an indie band); it was only a bad year if you measure rock music by whatever Eric Clapton and the solo Beatles were doing. I could name 20 great 1986 albums without having to even think about it.

    "True Stories" was more a film project than a Talking Heads album, but it still managed to produce a pretty good album, every bit as quirky and out of step with the times as their other albums, if not quite hitting the same peaks.

    1. Except for the redundancy of George's weird attacks seeming weird, I'm right with you on this, Opie.

      Personally, I reserve 'weird' for supernatural oddity -- like the weird Papa Legba scene in True Stories. Without the context of the film to help it along, that song does come off as a lightweight descendant of "I Zimbra".