Sunday, December 7, 2014

Talking Heads: Remain in Light (1980)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

This is one of those moments when music sounds new all over again. On their previous album, Talking Heads mired themselves in fear and loss; on Remain in Light, the most vibrantly moving pop album imaginable, they conquer that by finding the freedom and salvation in insanity, the rock & roll ideal of everything in nothingness, of throwing back the head in surrender. Byrne's advice three years later to "stop making sense" is the real statement, and this LP is the compelling argument.

We begin with David Byrne cracking the walls of "Drugs" to fall into the abyss of "Born Under Punches," a gospel-tinged, deceptively simple groove run into the ground with a dance beat. Everything about Remain in Light is deeply complex, but incisive enough that you don't notice. Byrne's disconnected images -- lacking all linear elements of his work up to this point -- gain resonance through the sheer association of his voice to "Heaven" and "The Big Country"; he unveils dramatic violence ("falling bodies") but he finds life, life even in death. The instrumental break sounds like a malfunctioning Atari; the Heads can't allow you to dance in any typical way.

Full fusion of music -- the love of R&B, funk, African music, gospel, hip-hop in a new-wave band -- comes to a head on "Crosseyed and Painless." Producer Brian Eno, a brilliant musician in his own right who after leaving Roxy Music had been associated with David Bowie and Devo before setting his production career in stone with the Heads, has for all intents and purposes become an ancillary member of the band, and he's not alone. The songwriting is so vast and intricate, with numerous session players, that the onstage lineup ballooned to nine members. You can have these bleeding funk rhythms, unapologetic fusion, and even a bizarre rap from Byrne about the various problems with "facts" and it is all fun but deadly serious, completely dedicated to itself and to the listener. The Heads' gift is to encapsulate somehow the joy in displacement, alienation, even bitter regret, especially in the opening lines: "Lost my shape / Trying to act casual / Can't stop / I might end up in the hospital."

What always made the Heads' music so beautiful was its narrowly sidestepping, devoted avoidance of pop normality. The hooks were there but they were somehow more involving. Here their work is thrusting with impossible, undeniable grace but it does not overreach or abandon its sense of subtlety. In the gorgeous, life-affirming "The Great Curve," a shifting, sliding, propulsive masterpiece, Byrne has made his full transition into the void of bliss, and it's full of joyful noise. All over this album are moments of band synergy that leave you marvelling; Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and especially the maverick Tina Weymouth (and at times even Brian Eno) all threaten at one point or another to steal the show, but mostly everybody's working for the same cause, and "Curve" is the orgasmic moment when they leave the whole world behind in their majestic polyrhythms. The astounding vocal arrangements that build their tower of glory and build some more, the intense wall of sound that's closer to a tapestry, the religious experience of sheer momentum, ruthlessly moving forward and straight into the mind and body simultaneously -- you could write a book about the nuances in this song alone, and for that matter the lyrics. Just "The world moves on a woman's hips" -- there's an essay. Just the exciting sound of Byrne's voice on the opening "Sometimes the world has a load of questions / Seems like the world knows nothing at all / The world is near but it's out of reach / Some people touch it but they can't hold on." Just "Night must fall... darker, darker." In the end, this is among the most overwhelming recordings of the 1980s and maybe more than that. It's pure bliss, and what power.

If the ultimate escape is to recognize reality for what it truly is, no more and no less (what could be more?), we can't deny that some can destroy themselves in the process, of enlightenment or just of wrongheaded conversion of ideas. The Heads and David Byrne have raised the gray areas to an art form. On Talking Heads: 77 the casual slaughter of his voice had been discomforting in a way even Johnny Rotten couldn't muster (since in the end, Rotten was preaching to the choir). But by Side Two of Remain in Light, Byrne has gained a sympathy and even an admiration of even his most one-dimensional subjects. Little Creatures and True Stories would be wholly based on this concept. This second half is closer to Talking Heads convention than the first, but just barely; it's louder, livelier, and even more unsettling than Fear of Music. "Once in a Lifetime," the southern-preacher ramble that will probably remain the signature tune in this group's discography, is a midpoint in more ways than one. You can see it, if you choose, as an optimistic comment on growing up and wondering how it happened, or as a pessimistic one on... well, the same thing, and a maybe a kind of quiet futility, the humanist lesson perhaps being that you can't let the complacency or the sorrow win. As he once did so often, Byrne looks at reality taken for granted and breaks it down until it feels as absurd as it really is. You might think of this song as a summary for the whole record.

Similarly, yet another self-contained contradiction, the surprisingly low-key single "Houses in Motion" examines the immense wonder and maddening strife of the material world. Byrne understands deeply the plight of his offbeat characters but can't stop himself from thinking of how ridiculous they are. You shouldn't have to strain to see the subtext here: "As we watch him digging his own grave / It was important to know that was where he's at / He can't afford to stop... that is what he believe / He'll keep on digging for a thousand years." It may not be as obvious as "Listening Wind," but it's equally relevant. Even more so is the greatest line Byrne will ever write: "Right about then, is where she give up / She has closed her eyes; she has give up hope." The music surges quietly this time as if to emphasize the importance of what he's saying -- and he is saying it, speak-singing in a way maybe licensed by hip hop but not necessarily owing a lot to it. The next song follows the same vocal path.

"Seen and Not Seen" is a spoken-word story, a space-age update of the Velvet Underground's "The Gift" without the macabre thrill of the earlier chestnut. Byrne tells, with ghostly deadpan delivery, a satirical but also genuinely upsetting tale of a man who decides to change his facial features (check out reality television sometime if you want proof that Byrne had some kind of Network devilish crystal-ball understanding of the dark side of humanity). While he grips us, we have here the seductive pronouncements of "The Great Curve" presenting a reversal of that song's relentless nonconformity and seeking out of the life and the thrill in anything and everything. It sounds new but ancient, electronically enhanced but natural, hopping but downbeat, chilly but faintly human, with a hint not so much of the embracing of madness but of begrudging acceptance of being crushed by the world. You dance to the impending doom of it all.

It arrives in "Listening Wind." Eno and the band present a warped Middle Eastern-influenced soundscape that's genuinely otherworldly -- it's difficult intuitively to understand how it's being crafted. When ClearChannel, shortly after the U.S. terrorist attacks in 2001, published a list of songs that they recommended leaving off playlists due to sensitivity, it's a bit surprising that this didn't come up, even if it wasn't a single. I don't know of any song more prophetic than this; the vision is charred with regret but, once again, understanding. The story is of Mojique, who resorts to terrorism against Americans after his life has been wrecked. Like the man digging the grave in "Houses in Motion," Mojique is so charged in his beliefs that he is ultimately blind, but his emotions -- the same as anyone's -- are made to correspond: "The wind in my heart / The dust in my head... Come to drive them away..." The band knows how to shift our sympathies, no matter how much current events taint our viewpoints, because they do it not only through their lyrics but through the brilliantly detailed and exuberant music, an atmosphere of electricity and horror. We are sent into a realm of the bleak and hopeless as quickly as Side One shot us into the stratosphere.

The closing track offers the shuddering, pitch-black aftermath. Chilling, completely lost, and with no chance of an escape, "The Overload" -- based on a theory of what Joy Division sounded like and surprisingly close -- makes no secret in its lyrics that even if we have given into the abyss, crushing reality has won this time. For six minutes we're falling into a black hole and stuck here. It's oppressive, haunting, and difficult, the music turgid and nightmarish, Byrne's voice sounding less like a man and more like broken machinery... and then it disappears, leaving us reeling forever.

[Originally posted in 2004.]

[SEE ALSO: Talking Heads: 77, More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music reviewed.]

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