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Talking Heads - Fear Of Music CD (album) cover


Talking Heads


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3.70 | 104 ratings

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5 stars In order to make the best Heads studio album ever, Byrne, Eno and Co. had to first experience a blinding flash of the obvious. "Hey, you know how David's singing and lyrics are always described as 'paranoid' by everybody? Maybe we should make an album that's all about being paranoid about various things!" The end result of this epiphany is a darker, more disturbing and less playful version of Talking Heads' already established instrumental texture, combined with Eno's atmospheric brilliance, and easily one of my favorite New Wave albums of all time.

The bulk of the album consists of tracks with one-word titles, each of which features Byrne expounding on that particular object from the point of view of somebody who, at the least, is somewhat wary of it, and at most is completely stark raving insane about it. Sometimes it's not so obvious that the song itself reflects a fear of the object - "Mind," for instance, is just David trying to figure out how to change the mind of the person he's singing to regarding something or other, and doesn't explicitly fit into the eyelid twitching of much of the rest of the album. On the other hand, the way the song moves from its cheery opening musical theme to that theme complimented by some surprisingly strident growling guitars and weird effects on Byrne's voice as he sings "miiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnd" seem to show somebody a little unstable in the head, so that kinda works. Ah well, the song is perfectly lovely whether it more or less fits the album's concept or not.

After that, though, things start to get strange - come on, when was the last time you ever heard a paranoid, catchy, rambling moody track about paper of all things? What David is trying to say exactly in this track is totally beyond me, whether he sees how light passes through paper as an analogy for his relationships with other people or whatever, but it doesn't really matter - the guitars on this track are simply glorious, taking the More Songs revolution and pushing it one step further towards interesting complexity. Just when you think the "fear of ___" concept isn't really holding muster that well, though, we come to the glorious "Cities." All sorts of crazy complaints can be found here, from obvious paranoid lunatic digs like "It's dark, dark in the daytime. The people sleep, sleep in the daytime if they want to! If they want to!" to more sarcastic ones like "Look over there!... A dry ice factory! A good place to get some thinking done," all over the band's paranoid rhythmic mastery over Eno's moody electric piano. And sheesh, that chorus, those one liners ("Did I forget to mention, forget to mention Memphis? Home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks!"), all found in one track...

I'm not sure it necessarily gets better from this point on out, but it's definitely on the same level at worst (this album is VERY consistent). "Life During Wartime" doesn't fit the one-word pattern, obviously, but David's paranoia is in full display nonetheless - lines like, "I changed my hairstyle so many times now I don't know what I look like!" are the norm, and his laments about not being able to lead a "normal" life during this time are contrasted disturbingly well by one of the most perfect dancable grooves I've ever heard in my life. "Memories Can't Wait" is even more disturbing, though, if only because David's paranoia is made even more intense by the menacing, echoey effects placed on the underpinning instrumental tracks and, er, Eno-tronics. Plus, there's just something so cool to me about the way David sings the "I'm sleeping, I'm flat on my BACK" line, with the back line sung with so much emphasis that it seems like his back will be pinned to the ground for the rest of eternity.

Just when it seems the band is getting into an unescapable gloomy rut, though, they come back with some paranoid tracks of a more mellow nature. David has suddenly decided he has something against "Air," of all things, but the band deals with it in such a way so that it seems like he's dealing more with a gentle breeze than an angry hurricane - the "air...air" backing vocals and the chorus should make it clear that this is meant to be pretty more than anything else. Who knows, maybe he's just afraid of air not protecting him from UV like it's supposed to ... Anyway, "Heaven" is up next, and it's glorious, a terrific parody (in the opinion of my brother and me) of David Bowie's plastic soul ballads from earlier in the decade. The great thing about it is that it captures so perfectly one of the downsides of most Christian religious teachings - they make heaven seem so boring!!! Sure, it's a nice place and all, but who really wants it when "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens"? The major-league feeling of prozac in the music helps too - I can just see David and everybody around him with big, empty smiles on their faces.

The absolute pinnacle for me, though, is "Animals." Yes, it's largely the "novelty" song of the album, so most reviewers have too much dignity to call it their favorite of the album. Screw dignity! Nobody needs dignity when David is bellowing in an over-over-over the top voice about how "Animals think ... they UNDERSTAND! To trust in them, a BIG MISTAKE! ANIMALS WANT TO CHANGE MY LIFE - I WILL IGNORE ANIMALS' ADVICE!" Or when he bellows "I know the animals ... ARE LAUGHING AT US!! THEY DON'T EVEN KNOW ... WHAT A JOKE IS!" Or especially when he enters that GLORIOUS Eno-processed vocal groove at the end, where he starts growling non-stop such brilliant lines as "You know animals are hairy? They're living on nuts and berries!" Come on, people, recognize the greatest philosophical treatise in the history of mankind when you see it! "ANIMALS THINK ... THEY'RE PRETTY SMART ... SHIT ON THE GROUND ... SEE IN THE DARK!"

The last two tracks are a slight letdown from the rest of the album, but not too badly. The biggest problem with "Electric Guitar," aside from dragging a bit, is that it's extremely difficult to figure out not just what David's problem is, but also whether he's pro-guitar or anti-guitar in the song. Still, the music is pretty cool, even if the vocals are too disturbing for my tastes. One could also complain about the closing "Drugs," if only because it's the longest track on the album and extremely lethargic at the same time. On the other hand, I love that atmosphere, as parts like the "And all I see is little DOTSDOTSDOTSDOTSDOTSDOTS" line and the shaking backing guitar lines create a "drugged out of my mind" mood as well as, I dunno, the Stones' "Sister Morphine." Good ole Eno.

Ooooh, and don't forget the album opener, even though it may as well belong to a different album. "I Zimbra" is largely the foundation of the following Remain in Light, as it's their first excursion into World Beat music, as well as a foundation for King Crimson's Discipline (that's not surprising, though - guess who plays that bizarre guitar part that makes the song into a classic? Yup, Robert Fripp!). Nonsense group vocals, "ethnic" guitar rhythms and drumming polyrhythms all combine here into a bizarre dose of butt-shakitude. And don't forget Tina Weymouth's bass, where she proves just how much can be done to set a groove while playing an extremely small number of notes.

So there's your album. Lots of people have trouble getting into this one, largely because it's so dark and somber and moody compared with the albums bookending it, but as somebody who loved this album on first listen, I must insist that this is worth further efforts. It just requires you, the listener, to think outside the regular adjectives usually ascribed to the band ("quirky," "ethnic," "bouncy" etc).

tarkus1980 | 5/5 |


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