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Monday, March 11, 2019

Talking Heads: Naked


1) Blind; 2) Mr. Jones; 3) Totally Nude; 4) Ruby Dear; 5) (Nothing But) Flowers; 6) The Democratic Circus; 7) The Facts Of Life; 8) Mommy, Daddy, You And I; 9) Big Daddy; 10) Bill; 11) Cool Water.

General verdict: Nice, diverse, and toothless grooves, more fit for a carefree holiday session than a solid farewell statement. And totally abusive of the chimpanzee stereotype.

Talking Headsʼ last album is often viewed as a compromise of sorts between their classic funky style and the pop-oriented twist of the previous two albums — a compromise that can often be seen within a single track; already at the very beginning, the tribal rhythms of ʽBlindʼ and its avantgarde electric guitar bring back memories of ʽBorn Under Punchesʼ, but the merry merry brass section could not exist without the prehistory of Little Creatures and True Stories. The problem with this interpretation is that, most likely, there was never any conscious decision to reach a compromise. The only decision that there seems to have been was as follows: go to Paris, have yourself a good time, invite lots of friends into the studio, and let fate take its course and guide us into the world of spontaneous bliss.

It is interesting to hear at least one Talking Heads album like this — without the kind of grueling self-discipline and meticulous calculation that their music usually suggests. But interesting does not necessarily equal successful. By letting their hair down and loosening up, the band seemingly lost its focus; and by compromising between the two successful modes of operation they had previously known, they made sure that the funky parts are no longer all that tense and terrifying, while the pop parts are no longer so openly endearing. Of all Talking Heads albums, this is the only one that has no easily discernible face — other than the monkey on the front cover, whose facial expression is a suitable illustration to the point made in ʽThe Facts Of Lifeʼ: «I dare you to think that you are really superior to me, motherfucker!» But if, as that song states, "Iʼm afraid that God has no master plan", then neither does David Byrne on this album; and without a master plan, Naked looks kind of... naked.

This does not mean that the songs are not likable. ʽBlindʼ is driven by a cool, tight groove — it is simply that there is no menace, no bite, no shivery epicness to that groove. It simply rolls along and invites you to dance. Byrne sings something that could be interpreted as a rant against police violence (though the lyrics have absolutely no matching points with the surrealistic video), a Cameroonian guitarist plays a Belew-style outro solo, but... letʼs face it, anybody could have recorded this track — at least, any respectable R&B combo with a good sense of groove. It does not help matters that instead of bringing back Eno, they put Steve Lillywhite in the producerʼs seat — the man partially responsible for the success of Peter Gabriel III and U2ʼs early albums, but also the man behind the disaster of The Rolling Stonesʼ Dirty Work; in any case, for these sessions he decided to keep a low profile, since there are almost no signs of the classic electronic coating that he used to smear on everything he came in contact with. Nothing spoiled — and nothing gained. On the other hand, nobody really knows if Eno could have done anything with this kind of material, either. If there is no cosmic mystique in the embryo, what can you expect from even the most talented of all midwives?

By the time ʽMr. Jonesʼ comes around, it becomes a little more clear what is going on: Naked is not an album of dark frenzy or domestic bliss, but rather one of «cozy sarcasm». Its grooves are nominally sunny and friendly, but offset somewhat by Davidʼs incessant rambling jabs against no one in particular and everyone you can think of. ʽMr. Jonesʼ here might very well be related to Dylanʼs Mr. Jones from ʽBallad Of A Thin Manʼ, except that the something that was happening here long ago is definitely over, and now "itʼs a big day for Mr. Jones, he is not so square". In the meantime, the music has surreptitiously mutated from familiar funk into all-out Latin territory, with no fewer than seven brass players supplying the rucus — all nice and well, but where are actual Talking Heads behind all this?

The nail-that-genre game continues with boppy ska on ʽTotally Nudeʼ, whose message mimicks the Kinksʼ ʽApemanʼ; the Bo Diddley beat on ʽRuby Dearʼ, a song that could have very easily been written by Bo himself (so, again, what is it doing on a Talking Heads album?); and, later on, with more excursions into country and blues territory, revealing that the «return to funkiness», heralded with ʽBlindʼ, was essentially a decoy, and that Naked is a return to nothing in particular. In a way, it represents progress, but blind progress — groping at anything that comes along, as long as the groove can be made playful, sarcastic, and accessible.

The horrible thing is that I like all these songs while they are playing — I just can never shake up any memories of them once they are gone. Nice and tasteful grooves; clever lyrics that poke fun at everything from family values to rich socialites to politicians to Homo sapiens as a whole; clean, but raw production that completely ignores 1988 outside the window and makes the album sound like it could have been made in 2018 — whatʼs not to like? But liking is one thing, and feeling profound, game-changing impact is another. By Talking Heads standards, all of these songs are trifles. ʽThe Facts Of Lifeʼ, which runs longer than everything else, might claim to be an exception — a slow, solemn, epic condemnation of the human race — but the music has such a comic sheen, instead of sending even the slightest hint of doom, that you kind of expect Byrne to slip into Bee Gees-ish falsetto at one point, and that he does. ʽ(Nothing But) Flowersʼ, the second single off the album and probably the most often played one, is another bit of shallow Latin dance that is quite enjoyable (and also continues the «naturalistic» message of ʽTotally Nudeʼ) and just as quickly forgettable.

The biggest disappointment is probably the grand finale: ʽCool Waterʼ is a surprisingly serious, humorless lament about the fate of the underprivileged — arguably the most straightforward social statement on a Talking Heads album ever — and it totally misses the mark. The music is some kind of barely registering indie-folk shuffle that is more Smiths than Talking Heads (not surprisingly since Johnny Marr is in guitar control on this one) and much more monotonous than the average Smiths song; and, as you can probably tell, Byrneʼs vocal style is really no good for direct social indictments in the plaintive genre. As not only the last song on a Talking Heads album, but the last song on the last Talking Heads album, ʽCool Waterʼ is a pretty pathetic way to fizzle out a great career (though arguably not much worse than ʽCity Of Dreamsʼ).

One idea that struck me while contemplating the monkey cover is that less than a year from then, another album with a monkey cover and a monkey theme would begin making the rounds — Pixiesʼ Doolittle — and that, for all it is worth, this was officially the time when Talking Heads would pass the crown of the worldʼs zaniest pop band to Black Francis and his own bass-wielding lady. Once formed, the analogy becomes so strong that it is almost impossible not to compare the pleasant, but tired and unfocused jamming of Naked to the freshness, rawness, and new brand of wit and humor offered by Pixies. And if Talking Heads could indeed be dubbed «the Beatles of New Wave», then this is where they inevitably lose out — even if they may have very well suspected that Naked could become their last album, they did not find it in them to make it their Abbey Road (at best, it became a self-completed Let It Be... a Let It Be... Naked!! har har har). Admittedly, it could have been much worse — they could have been lured away into generic synth-pop, for instance — but still, this is no way for a great band to end its career.


  1. "Toothless" is a good word to describe this album. I think I like it a bit more than you do, but it just seems so inessential. Byrne is still bemused and critical of humanity, but he doesn't sound scared anymore. It makes a big difference.

  2. Excellent review. I am not a Brian Eno fun but facts are facts: Part of the Heads greatness was due to his collaboration, as he also improved David Bowie's career in the 70s and U2's career in 1984. Also 1988 was a miserable year for rock music unless you like The Pixies or Sonic Youth. So miserable it was that I chose a folk album as the best from that year (Tracy Chapman). U2, REM, AC DC, Van Halen, etc. were doing shit. And alternative Americana a la Replacement or Husker Du were diying. And I even don't like them.