Talking Heads - Fear of Music Music Album Reviews

Today on Pitchfork, we are taking a critical look at Talking Heads with new reviews of five albums that chart their journey from New York art punks to a voracious and spectacular pop group.

Fear of Music, the third album by Talking Heads, begins at maximum velocity and minimum warmth. Congas, funk guitar, chirping synths: Everything is in motion, and yet curiously, nothing seems to be moving. A guitar figure like a crying baby keeps tripping the song’s downbeat, and in the closing seconds, a phased guitar line comes in played by Robert Fripp, layering 5/4 over 4/4 and effectively erasing whatever forward momentum this blank, pistoning thing was creating to begin with. The groove feels uncanny, a little inhuman, like a flag rippling in no wind.
The words, meanwhile, consist of barked nonsense syllables from Hugo Ball, a German poet of the Dada School. Dadaism mocked the very idea that words could convey meaning, that speakers could carry authority; for a band so devoted to verbal communication they named themselves after it, it was a forbidding gesture. And for fans of the New York band in the late ’70s, hearing “I Zimbra” might have felt like watching their hero obliterated in the first frame of the movie.

It was exactly this sort of hero’s-journey narrative into which Fear of Music seemed to cast a wrench. The band’s popularity and acclaim had been gathering heat; “Take Me to the River,” their stiff-legged cover version of the Al Green standard, peaked at No. 26 on the Hot 100. They’d appeared on Saturday Night Live and American Bandstand, and they’d been touring to steadily bigger crowds. Already the quintessential New York band to New Yorkers, now they risked becoming the quintessential New York band to everyone else—maybe even to the sorts of folks who lived in the “Big Country,” the places about which Byrne had already admitted, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.”
Fear of Music can be read, in part, as an attempt to throw buckets of conceptual cold water on everything that had made the Talking Heads beloved, or to at least submit it to rigorous forensic testing. They experimented with their songwriting process; instead of working from Byrne’s compositions, they entered the studio cold, jamming together until the shape of something promising emerged. As they did on More Songs About Buildings and Food, they enlisted Brian Eno as producer, but this time Eno played a much bigger role: It was Eno who suggested a Table of Contents approach to the tracklist, which turned the song titles into a litany of proper nouns, and it was he who furnished the Hugo Ball poem for inspiration when Byrne was struggling with writer’s block.

As a band of former design students, the Talking Heads thought harder than most about presentation, about the telling power of surfaces. On Fear of Music, they repeatedly drew attention away from the picture to gesture at the frame: The radio announcement for the album was a simple, stilted intonation—“Talking Heads have a new album/It’s called Fear of Music”—repeated over and over. The album cover was a black obelisk, alternately bumpy and smooth but admitting no light and emitting no clues. There was a song called “Electric Guitar,” and the refrain, as the electric guitars gnashed their teeth in every available space, was “Never listen to electric guitar.” The bittersweet futility of this command neatly encapsulated a band that was a tangle of conflicting impulses in 1979. They shunned every method that had worked for them before, attempting perhaps to become a different version of themselves, and yet they only purified their essence. In jettisoning old methods and throwing themselves into new ones, they embraced the only true underlying force of their music: relentless interrogation.

The album plays out like a series of mini-stand up routines about the absurdity, or the pointlessness, of human observation. Each song contains at least one declaration of seeming authority (“Hold on, because it’s been taken care of”; “Find myself a city to live in”), which Byrne goes on to repeat with increasing mania and decreasing confidence. As the music subdivides itself into a million tiny repeating phrases, you feel a grasping mind trying and failing to find purchase.

“Everything seems to be up in the air at this time," Byrne observed mildly on “Mind,” with deadpan irony. On Fear of Music, he became our metaphysical straight man, able to defamiliarize the world, object by object, with his through-a-telescope gaze and his curious tone. He describes his “Mind” like some peculiar object that has crash-landed in his living room. “Drugs won’t change you/Religion won’t change you/What’s the matter with you?/I haven’t got the faintest idea,” Byrne mutters. Imagine a multi-tentacled alien attempting to put on a pair of pants; this was Byrne trying to make sense of reality.

The album is almost heroically funny, each song a fit of pique aimed at the broadest and most pervasive targets imaginable: paper (things never fit on it), electric guitars (you should never listen to it), and air—for god’s sake, air. “Air can hurt you, too,” Byrne reminds us—a hell of a retort to the patronizing suggestion to “get some air.” He agonizes over the existence of “Animals”; “They’re never there when you need them/They’re never there when you call them.” He sounds incensed, deranged, his voice going guttural and squeaky—the performance is a hair’s breadth away from shtick. His voice rises to an indignant peak at the biggest insult: Animals “don’t even know what a joke is.”

The music seems to know exactly what a joke is, and there are points where it seems to be laughing directly at you. There’s the “nyah-nyah” keyboard refrain on “I Zimbra,” the chittering keyboard on “Mind” like a bird that won’t shut up outside your window, undermined by Tina Weymouth’s banana-peel bassline. Like any good joke, the music seems to be constantly retelling itself, circling back on the first thought before the second thought even begins. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, stop me if you’ve heard this, stop me, stop me. It’s the sound of propulsive uncertainty. “Still might be a chance that it might work out,” Byrne squeaks on “Paper,” which is what you say just before everything falls apart.

The scratching sound on “Cities” mimic pencils blackening every inch of a paper’s free space, and the keyboards, the vocals, strike with the force of a typewriter hammer smacking paper. This was writing and thinking as a percussive act, each note a small panicked violence on reality, the force and insistence belying the foreknowledge that all this would disappear eventually. Cities would fall to war, the good times would end, were always ending—if Byrne wasn’t going to break his bug-eyed poker face to spell all this out to you, Jerry Harrison’s guitars and keyboards were going to scream it. The guitar that intrudes at the end of “Mind” is like a pained groan, begging Byrne to shut up. The ratcheting sound ringing throughout “Cities” sounds like a scythe trying to sever the talking head from its body, once and for all.

At the center of Fear of Music is “Life During Wartime,” inarguably one of their five most iconic songs. The lyrics ratchet paranoia all the way to the top: We open with a van loaded with weapons, rumored but not seen, and a gravesite “where nobody knows.” A triumph consists of finding some peanut butter to last you “a couple of days.” Everything else—records to play, letters to write, identity crises to have (“I’ve changed my hairstyle so many times now…”) is just quaint, a reminder of better times when we were allowed to be miserable for our own little reasons. Significantly, it’s the calmest that Byrne had ever sounded on record to that point—all the quavers in that reedy voice were suddenly smoothed out. The panic is always in the anticipation; when the disaster hits, we’re oddly calm. “The sound of gunfire, off in the distance/I’m getting used to it now.” I’m getting used to it now—is there any proclamation of success bleaker?

The song, and Byrne’s vocal performance, offered a premonition of the shellacked hair and hard angles of his big-suit, early-’80s Stop Making Sense era, which would begin in earnest with 1980’s masterpiece Remain in Light. There was an incipient pitilessness to the American air; the country had just elected Reagan. New York City was a pyre of burning tenements and a city teetering on the brink of financial ruin. When chaos descends, talk is the first thing deemed cheap. So Byrne burned his notebooks, as the lyrics went, and all that was left was the burning in his chest that kept him alive. Civilization is a privilege; anxiety is a privilege; worrying about paper and minds and dogs and drugs are privileges, and they might constitute the best and sweetest moments of your life. That’s the joke, that’s both the setup and the punchline: You think you’re miserable now? This misery is the good part.

And that would be the epigraph of Fear of Music if it weren’t for “Heaven.” It’s a song that Byrne almost didn’t write, based on a melody he nearly threw away. Eno heard Byrne humming it to himself and drew the song out of him, like a forced confession. The band in heaven plays your favorite song, plays it all night long. It’s a place where nothing ever happens; everyone leaves the party at the same time, and every kiss begins again exactly the same. The song is a prayer for order, a cessation of observation. When the act of observation, which grants us our humanity and fuels our neurosis, falls away—what’s left? Pure experience, untouched by anything else. “There’s a party in my mind, and I hope it never stops,” Byrne says on “Memories Can’t Wait.” Maybe the best moment happens when everyone leaves.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Talking Heads - Fear of Music Music Album Reviews Talking Heads - Fear of Music Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on April 23, 2020 Rating: 5


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