Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Classic Albums: Talking Heads, Fear of Music

I just finished a very captivating book by Will Hermes called Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, which recounts the music scene in New York City from 1973 to 1977.  I especially liked how he weaved very disparate genres of music together, showing how salsa, disco, hip-hop, punk and new wave all grew out of a very tumultuous period in the Big Apple's history.  I also went back and listening with new ears to some of the artists mentioned in the book, including the Talking Heads.  (The title of the book comes from a Heads song of the era.)

Over the years I have come to conclusion that their 1979 record Fear of Music is my favorite.  I am in the minority with this preference; Remain in Light is most consistently considered their best, and those who don't think so gravitate more towards the early, CBGBs-influenced sound of their first two albums.  I like Fear of Music best, however, because it retains the song-oriented nature of the earliest stuff while mixing in the Brian Eno-influenced experimental sound and Afrobeat polyrhythms that dominate Remain in Light.  I must admit that that album, for all of its wonderful moments, has a tendency towards heavy-handed political statements and a kind of Third World fetishization that's more than a little problematic.

When I first bought Fear of Music on cassette for a cut rate price at a small record store that soon went out of business in the summer after I graduated high school, I was deeply intrigued by the song titles I saw on back: "I Zimbra," "Mind," "Paper," "Cities," "Life During Wartime," "Memories Can't Wait," Air," "Heaven," "Electric Guitar," and "Drugs."  The fact that most of the song titles consisted of one word nouns, along with the corrugated iron cover, lent it an air of mystery.  The first song, "I Zimbra," only piqued my curiosity, with its unorthodox rhythms and nonsense-language lyrics.  It sounded to me like the kind of thing that Max Rebo's band would have played aboard Jabba the Hutt's pleasure barge.

The next three songs on the first side are much more conventional in structure, but still striking.  Tina Weymouth lays downs some really seriously funky bass on "Mind," "Paper" is a quick shot of adrenaline, and "Cities" contains two of my favorite lyrical passages.  I love the way lead singer David Byrne sings "I think of London/ Small city/ Dark/ Dark in the daytime!"in a slightly exasperated tone, since he captures that burg's rather dank, claustrophobic atmosphere quite well.  Later on, he deadpans, "Memphis/ Home of Elvis/ And the ancient Greeks," which has always cracked me up.  The first four songs, and this one in particular, illustrate how the Heads could lay down some grooves and rock out at the same time.  Rock and roll bands these days only rarely write stuff that can be danced to.

On the last two songs on the first side, the one word title songs give way to "Life During Wartime" and "Memories Can't Wait."  The former is catchy as hell, and one of the more well known tunes in the Heads' catalog.  The other signals the more experimental and less accessible direction that side two will take, with its air of foreboding and punishing synthesizer and guitar backing.  The trebly tones and echoing vocals sound almost hysterical, evoking the feeling of a nervous breakdown.  I've never tried to understand the intended meaning of this song, since I prefer to get swept up in its abstract feel of the uncanny it provides.  I think I hear the word "overdose" in the murky echoes, so perhaps it's a drug song.

Side two starts with some catchier material, but soon gets back into the harrowing territory of "Memories Can't Wait."  The first song, "Air," gets back into the funky grove but retains a paranoid edge in lines like "what is happening to my skin?" and "air can hurt you too."  It could be a song about the environment, or it could just be a schizophrenic rant by an unstable narrator a la so many Randy Newman songs, this time with kickass melodic bass and searing guitar.  The next song, "Heaven," certainly stands out as the most conventionally beautiful on record, an anguished ballad about the afterlife that depicts heaven as a kind of boring drag or an impossible dream.  The key line, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens" seems a kind of plea for oblivion, for a true death.  I bought this album while stuck in my hometown, working a mind-numbing factory job before leaving for college.  Living a life on constant boredom and repetition at the time, this song really grabbed me.  Not that I had a death wish, but that my life seemed to be one where nothing ever happened.

Perversely, after giving the listener such a beautiful song, one that but for its disturbing lyrical content should have been a hit tune, the Talking Heads end the album with "Animals,""Electric Guitar," and "Drugs," where David Byrne seems to be playing an uneasy paranoiac.  How else to interpret a line, sung with a kind of spacey conviction, that "someone controls electric guitars."  On this song and the others, the sound becomes abrasive, the structures meander, and the meanings get murky.  It's as if they've gotten tired of translating their ideas into accessible songs like "Mind" and want to push their listeners to meet them on their own terms.  "Drugs" ends the affair with something that sounds like a bad trip, all nervy, edgy and disorienting.

For a long time when I listened to the album, I stopped after "Heaven."  Truth be told, the last songs, especially "Drugs," weirded me out too much.  I've now learned to appreciate them, and the rare album where an experimental band is able to mix relatively straightforward traditional songs with moody, unsettling soundscapes.  That's the beauty of the post punk music that the Heads made, and why that genre, from Joy Division to Wire, will always endure in the hearts of its scattered devotees.

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