When David Byrne wails "Take A Look At These Hands!" on what would come to be known as arguably the best Talking Heads album, Remain In Light
, he creates a mental image of himself. Paranoid, unstable, and melodramatic, David Byrne is everything most alt bands in the 80's were- with a twist. Byrne, a thinking man, often called into question topics songwriting never delved into before. Unlike the dark bands of the big hair period of American History, Byrne's songs were NOT boy meets girl, girl dies, boy sees ghosts and eventually kills himself to end the ghosts. So typical. Byrne on the other hand, wrote about macabre periods of history, and he had a heavy fascination with the concept of self-image. The lyrical content of his pieces propose ideas that go against stable existence itself. Songs merely brush over ideas that would be considered ridiculous in Maycomb, Alabama. Adding to his sense of mysticism was the producer he had to create his greatest masterpiece, 1980's Remain In Light
. The man? Brian Eno. Known for his ambience pieces, Eno seemed the perfect man to make Byrne's creation the darkest, most twisted, hang-yourself album this side of Closer
. The only glitch thrown into making this black concoction? The Talking Heads are a good time funk band. Death is not what their music breeds. Songs by these guys pulsate, groove, experiment, and whatever else makes funk the boundary pushing genre it is. So what could you possibly get when you mix David Byrne's passions with Brian Eno's swirling darkness and top it all off with a big glass o funk? Possibly the greatest album of all time. Talking Heads- Remain In Light
What one must understand about Talking Heads is that they’re not situated properly form wise. As in it’s not 3 guys with guitars and a dude behind drums. There are three men credited with guitars (mainly Adrian Belew), four with basses (Tina Weymouth)), five with keyboards (Jerry Harrison)), and seven with percussion (Chris Frantz). Also, The Heads have a knack for throwing whatever-the-***-they-find into a song and see if it works. Horns, static, video game bleeps, guitar destruction, all find a place in this band’s songs. The unlikely Mormon marriage of Funk and the four wives I mentioned earlier sounds like a cacophonous mesh of holy-***, when in reality, it adds to the unpredictable charm Remain In Light
carries throughout it’s eight song lifespan. The fearlessness of Byrne and Eno bleeds through on songs like The Great Curve
, where the production throws together 3 vocals hooks, adds in 2 solos of what can only be described as noise (courtesy of Adrian Belew), bangs on for 6 minutes, and is the defining representation of what the Talking Heads are all about. Drawn out, strange, unpredictable, but so goddamn awesome. The experimenting and “see if it works” attitude displayed on this album are what set it apart from the great and what makes it superb. The album opener, Born Under Punches
, throws noises of Sega Genesis Pinball over a classic funk riff and stuffs it between twitchy rants of “I’m Not A Drowning Man! And I’m Not A Burning Building! (I’m A Tumbler!) Fire Cannot Hurt A Man. (Not The Government Man!)”. About two-thirds of the way through this deranged gem, the funk literally becomes a marching band procession, with the backup vocals chanting “And The Heat Goes On!” oblivious to the chaos around it. This kind of controlled insanity make Remain In Light
so separate from the ordinary, and in only the best possible way.
The eclectic feel of the album is one of the reasons it goes down 26 years later as genius. Each song on Remain In Light
is different from any other, leaving the listener with a balanced and satisfying listen. Seemingly everything from the light pop of Once In A Lifetime
to the bleak computer ice of The Overload
is covered. The Arabian Snake Charmer horns of Houses In Motion
are incorporated brilliantly for a catchy but mellower piece off of Remain In Light
. Byrne hides creepy words behind the funk and horns, but when dissected, lyrics like “As we watch him digging his own grave, It’s important to know where he’s at. He can’t afford to stop… that is what he believes. He’ll keep digging for a thousand years,” paint what is inside Byrne’s head. What’s more odd is the sneer with which he delivers this line. Byrne’s darker side truly comes out on the hypnotic second half of the album, particularly during the spoken word Seen and Not Seen
where light monkish chants support a rhyme-less poem about the metamorphosis of humans. It’s spine chilling stuff, far different from the dancehall feel of the first four songs. Eno’s production tricks really come through here, where stray bleeps and bloops make for what sounds like a musical game of Pong, just far more interesting. On this half of the album though, Byrne’s musical influences come through. The claves that open Listening Wind
have an African feel to them, and I already mentioned the horns to Houses In Motion
. While granted, some dallies in other culture’s music succeed more than others, the Talking Heads established don’t-care attitude makes the listener not care either. In the end, it sounds like a musical history class, just with funk as the main course.
However, while Brian Eno and David Byrne deserve a lot of credit for their struggles and achievements on this album, credit must be given where credit is due. The musical virtuosity of everyone in the Talking Heads make Remain In Light
an album to go back to and admire with a musician's ear. Each member of the band shines at one point or another with all three showing off in the aforementioned opener Born Under Punches
. Adrian Belew’s guitar work throughout the first four songs is perfectly executed, particularly the shredding he does on The Great Curve
. As I said before, it's weird noise, but controlled in some strange way. Bassist Tina Weymouth grooves steadily on the opener and beyond, and provides the simple but catchy line to the lost single Once In A Lifetime
with ease. Jerry Harrison works the crap out of the keys whenever he can, and his solo spot on the opener is like unpouring a digital clock's pieces onto the floor and seeing how the mesh. And while it be true this group has it's own talents, what Eno does to their sound is unrivaled. The smooth monotonous bassline that beats the slow pulse of The Overload
is an Eno staple, and Harrison plays it perfectly, while Belew and Weymouth bounce stray sounds into the air. This track, the finale, is a death march, with the band playing the parts of the organists and casket holders. Byrne sounds so nearly posthumous on this song, as he speaks as wearily as an old man, a far cry from the freestyle rap he dropped on early album rocker Crosseyed And Painless
. As he breathes lines like "A terrible signal too weak to even recognize", you get the sense of darkness mentioned earlier in the review.
That darkness is what powers the emotional songs on the album. Perhaps Byrne's strongest lyrical moment is the penultimate The Listening Wind
, where the recites the tale of a cheated Native American bent on revenge is told with a narrative but sympathetic third person. Through 3 verses and a sighingly catchy refrain, the listener learns this Native American is a terrorist, but Byrne twists it so the listener sides with the terrorist. I think the Matrix guys should do a movie on this... Either way, the way Byrne vocally gets into the atmosphere he wants is admirable. He can sound like a paranoid monkey one minute, and the next an ascending martyr. It's all a result of what's going on in that head of his, and the twistedness comes out in his songs both lyrically and musically. It takes someone geniusly out of his mind to write something as wondefully weird as The Great Curve
, and while Byrne probably isn't crazy at all, when tapping into that far off psyche in someone's mind, you're bound to get something beautiful. Byrne didn' just get something beautiful. He came away with one of the greatest albums of all time.
Born Under Punches
The Great Curve