Review Summary: I feel like this album is too good for me to listen to.
About 2 minutes and 50 seconds into “Born Under Punches”, the first track on Talking Heads fourth record, Remain in Light, David Byrne speaks to us in his native language; the sequenced but erratic clicks of an overheated binary system burst out of file to scream like they’re accosting the heavens the best way they can, until they’re wrestled back into place. At this point in my life, I’m thoroughly convinced that Byrne, the lead singer and certain face of the band, rode down to our humble planet on the same intergalactic vessel as Stanley Kubrick, surely sent here in response to some existential distress call we didn’t even know we made, but one that, amongst the more psychically-attuned members of the Milky-Way Neighborhood Association, grated like a newborn screech at 4AM on a Tuesday night.
Still, Byrne was raised among us. He speaks English fluently, but with a control and detachment that could only be achieved by a professional observer; a devoted student not of the language, but of why we need it. Remain in Light is awash in short clips of phrase that read like anecdotes with the real-life sense and wisdom shucked out, leaving behind only the ring of the words (often beautiful), and the strange impression of meaning and depth. In many ways, this lyrical style, which had been incubating for some time from a more playful place on the band’s debut to the darker and more ambiguous musings of Fear of Music, is the poetic embodiment of producer Brian Eno’s distinctive brand of atmospherics. If Byrne striving for acute understanding of our Earth, then Eno is the Earth-man with an incomprehensible grasp on the mysteries of the great beyond. Here, he’s worked the band’s music into mantra-like loops, focusing on the extraneous, bringing to the forefront the pops, the clicks, the sliding along the strings, all of the in-betweens. Nothing could be more perfect, because this is an album in flux.
Moving past baseless rumors about species, Remain in Light is a completely fascinating record. While certain elements make it crystal clear that this is a Talking Heads record, it’s unlike anything else the band ever made. The distinction, I think, is simple. They made the rest of their music. Remain in Light happened to them. To make this more clear, let’s look at the track where it seems most obvious. “Seen and Not Seen” follows two of the best cuts on the record, “Once in a Lifetime”, the radio hit, and “Houses in Motion”, the sexiest and funkiest thing the band might ever have done. The song is both a story and not. Its beat falls in slow and lazy. Embellishments a la Eno are the sonic equivalent of floating 45 feet above Times Square, 10PM, Friday night, in slow motion, billboards blinking, crowds moving in a chaotic thrush that looks strangely like order. Byrne’s voice is buried waist deep in the blur of noise, but there’s something different here about his inflection. The story is of people, human beings, changing their appearances by focusing their minds on a physical ideal. But David Byrne is not telling it. It is coming through him. His unaffected deadpan is anything but lifeless. It’s filled with energy from outside. The hums and murmurs of the background vocals strike a perfect, faraway harmony, as I wonder if the Talking Heads are on contract to soundtrack purgatory.
“Some may have gotten half way there, and then changed their minds. He wonders if he, too, might have made a similar mistake…”
Last year, after the release of My Bloody Valentine’s comeback record, and a good bit of reflection, I began my subscription to the idea that there are no geniuses, just people with an uncanny ability to read and reflect the times. To me, Remain in Light was the door humankind stepped through into the digital age, with all its conveniences and terrors. It’s hard to choose which track here is the most frightening, not to mention most beautiful, heroic, or perfect. “Once in a Lifetime” deserves the attention it gets for striving to put into pop-music form the totality of the human condition the way “A Day in the Life” did, an endeavor, that could only end in nonsense, but nonsense of the most beautiful kind.
For giving me the consistent shivers, though, the award must go to “Listening Wind.” This song is a tragedy, and perhaps more moving than the former because it’s not the tale of all humankind, but the tale of one human, all the more powerful because Mojique, our hero, plays a stereotype that’s been my (American) culture’s quintessential villain figure since, oh, sometime in 2001. Yes, Mojique is a terrorist, but that seems so embarrassing to even write. The story is desperation. I hardly want to describe it, because David Byrne already does just about the best ***ing job possible.
“He feels the time is surely now or never…”
Mojique is nothing like me or probably anyone else reading this review, but, all at once, the opposite is true. This record is about identity and the loss of it, changing faces, losing shapes, waking up not knowing where you are, how you arrived there. It’s about human beings struggling to remain themselves in the face of endless knowledge, endless size and space, endless crowds, unfathomable systems. It’s about human invention slowly approaching the architecture of the eternal in scope and appearance, with keyboards imitating the language of the afterlife, and our sheer lack of ability to understand. Driving around Downtown Richmond, VA and listening to “The Overload,” it was slow moving. I hit lights and traffic, and as I drove I looked around me, unable somehow to push myself to move faster than the throb of the bass. So many people. Lives and stories I’ll never know. Remain in Light tried to tell them all, an impossible task.
Damn it all if it didn’t come close.