Talking Heads – Remain In Light
Choosing once more to utilise the services of producer/collaborator Brian Eno, Talking Heads continued to explore their own musical and artistic boundaries with their fourth album, Remain In Light. Their previous outing, on 1979’s Fear of Music, showed a marked progression from the nerdy jerkiness of their first two efforts, with its darker themes, esoteric lyrics and more experimental sound, and under Eno’s guidance once more Talking Heads set out for newer, unchartered territory.
Musically, the band sought to re-frame themselves as a group in the most fundamental sense: previously they had been essentially a backing group to frontman and creative leader David Byrne, and with this in mind it was decided that the whole group (Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz and guitarist Jerry Harrison) would work up the basis for what would become Remain In Light’s songs from instrumental jams. Influenced by the afrobeat music of Fela Kuti, the band experimented with polyrhythms, moving away from the short, spiky New Wave of old and towards a groove-based style of music; for the tour of the album Talking Heads’ line-up would be augmented by a further four musicians to carry this over to the live performance. Thus — although not displaying an overt afrobeat element — the record is strikingly different to anything they had attempted before, and distinct emphasis is placed throughout on repetition of musical phrases to afford what is at times a hypnotic quality to much of the music on offer.
Unlike previous albums, many of the songs in this set lack a narrative element to the lyrics, with Byrne eschewing his usual tendency for quirky emotion-free observations in favour of short, chant-like phrases and ominous proclamations, and a sense of urgent paranoia is quickly established when Byrne sings “I’m not a drowning man/I’m not a burning building” on opening track Born Under Punches. The qualifier that “drowning cannot hurt a man/fire cannot hurt a man” — sung with an air of taut, nervous conviction – only serves to heighten concerns for the manic, sermonising character who has clearly taken leave of his senses, despite his protestations of sanity as he declares “I’m a government man”.
The essence of what the first person narrator is (or is not) lies at the core of Remain In Light, as Byrne’s lyrics touch upon themes of identity, alienation and suspicion with a vocal delivery abundant with burning restlessness. Without doubt the album’s most famous and accessible example comes in the form of the bizarrely brilliant pop of Once In A Lifetime, where Byrne dons the guise of a faux preacher-cum-life coach, boldly evangelising to listeners bemused by the speed of their modern lives who may ask themselves “well, how did I get here?”. Elsewhere, Houses In Motion finds him “walking a line/just barely enough to be living”, whilst veering off into the cryptic (“I’m keeping my fingers behind me”), and it seems at every turn the uncertainty is there; on the superbly agitated Crosseyed And Painless he declares: “lost my shape, trying to act casual/can’t stop, I might end up in the hospital”
to the backdrop of an irresistibly danceable rhythm, before reeling off a list of ‘facts’ about facts themselves, as seen through the fractured lens of the song’s delusional protagonist.
Having epitomised his existential angst with frenzied delivery and arcane poetry, one could be forgiven for thinking that nothing more comprehensible is forthcoming, so it is perhaps typical of Byrne that the most explicit rendering of the record’s central premise comes hand-in-hand with his most dispassionate vocal. On the spoken word of Seen And Not Seen he flatly recounts the story of a man seeking to change his physical appearance by the power of thought alone, with the remarkable effect of making the whimsical and slightly tragic sound serious and matter of fact. The song might even serve as a punchline of sorts, had the setup not been as unnerving and Byrne’s tone of voice not so unconcerned.
Even the album cover sought to almost drive the point home in an artful manner, and in keeping with the spirit of distributed creative control the artwork was entrusted to Tina Weymouth. It may appear clunky in the 21st century but her collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (utilising cutting edge techniques at the time) afforded a perfect visual embodiment to the recurring subject matter of ambiguous identities. There was even a nod to her father – a former pilot – in the motif of a series of war planes on the reverse of the sleeve.
After high watermark of Remain In Light, Talking Heads would subsequently take three years to record the follow up, unveiling another change in direction and drawing the curtain on perhaps the more experimental phase of their career. They would go on to produce more successful singles, bringing them to wider attention, but creatively, musically and critically they would never top this.
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