25 Masterworks: Talking Heads – Remain in Light
My Spin on Masterworks: 12 of 25
Remain in Light
Producer, collaborator, musical übermensch, and alleged egotist Brian Eno has described Talking Heads’ fourth album as “terribly optimistic in a way”, characterising its mood as a distillation of “looking out to the world and saying, ‘What a fantastic place we live in. Let’s celebrate it.’”
Now, I appreciate that this is coming from the guy who had a major hand in the album’s conception, but unless he was speaking ironically, I can’t fathom where the heck Eno was coming from. Yes, Remain in Light conveys startling sonic clout and an energy which borders on maniacal at times, but never once do I perceive optimism when listening to the eight songs housed within. If anything, the spirit that emerges is one of utmost bewilderment. David Byrne’s twisty, restless songwriting circles a melange of protagonists whose minds are clouded with apprehension and warped by the demands and prevailing ideologies of western culture. Whether or not this was his direct intention, Byrne’s lyrics throughout Remain in Light ring with fury and confusion, the frontman “preaching, shouting and ranting” in the face of the 1980s climate, yelping out from beneath the oppressive hands of an imperious government. The result isn’t a celebration of the “fantastic place we live in”, but rather a reflection of its jargon and capacity to breed alienation, paranoia, disillusion, and occasionally violence. All this, and it manages to sound effervescently kinetic and imaginative; one of those albums which improves with age, its appeal burgeoning rather than dating.
Byrne, guitarist Jerry Harrison, bassist Tina Weymouth and percussionist Chris Frantz undertook a peculiar journey in assembling this collection. There was controversy regarding the twin authorities of Byrne and Eno, new flavours being added to the band’s already-porous mixture (specifically the adoption of African rhythms and conventions), and Byrne’s struggles with writer’s block prompted new methods of self-expression, shifting from linear patterns to more freewheeling vocal displays. When everything finally synthesised, the varied strands of sonic experimentation undertaken by each party produced an outstanding piece of work. Listening to Remain in Light in 2015, one still feels a tingle of the boldly new: something promising sweeping influence, though containing a magic that hasn’t quite been replicated. It inhabits its own space, these jams ricocheting through an elasticated mesh of genres, while still sounding sharp, well-packaged, and intelligent. That its anxieties and nervous tics have also remained malleable across this timespan is either a case of extreme misfortune, or a masterful stroke of forward-thinking songwriting.
Remain in Light hits its 35th birthday in October, and it still fizzes with a vibrancy and relevance which has thrived further in the context of the 21st Century’s peaks and troughs. Nestled at its centre is one of Talking Heads’ best-known and commercially revered songs; the twinkling, immaculate ‘Once in a Lifetime’. The cornerstones of the album find their collective crux here: repetition, textural sumptuousness, and a jittery outlook on modernity. Byrne’s smartly-penned list of life’s notches unfurls like the treadmill of everyman existence: a checklist of desirables that typify another identikit life. Beautiful house, beautiful spouse, beautiful car. And that road eventually screeches into the inevitable life crisis, condensed by Byrne into a simple couplet with deceptively simple magnitude. “And you may ask yourself / ‘Am I right? Am I wrong?’ / And you may ask yourself / ‘My God, what have I done?’” As with the entirety of Remain in Light, ‘Once in a Lifetime’ wraps its startling truths in an evergreen eclecticism which has assured it decades of acclaim.
Talking Heads broke with the swell of new-wave during the 1970s, flipping the coin of post-punk to funkier textures, though without severing their proclivity for social commentary. Several songs burn with a righteous anger, of which ‘Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)’ is particularly formidable, railing at the moral stormclouds that had gathered over America during the previous decade’s turbulence. Over one of the itchiest grooves ever mined by the group, Byrne near-shrieks his grievances, continually returning to a characterisation of the government as a pair of domineering hands operating under the powerless gaze of first-world citizens. Stretching to six minutes, the relentless repetition of its strikingly dense jam carries the song’s parenthetical mantra: even when the machinations of the oppressive body are laid bare, the heat goes on. Change is harder to secure than knowledge, and the frustration crackles through every bar.
And so it goes. Although these songs unfold without chord changes or stylistic swerves, they pop and sparkle with grace notes from all in play. Fidgety, choppy guitars scramble over bass riffs which pop, lurch, and hum with clockwork precision. Frantz’s African-inspired polyrhythms mesh with Byrne’s acrobatic vocal displays, as he shifts from ranting and raving one moment to scatting and intoning spoken-word diatribes the next. And keeping the listener hooked throughout are the glimpses of spooked lives governed by ever-warped popular doctrines. ‘Seen and Not Seen’ is an unsettling, Lynchian study of one man’s pursuit of his own ideal facial representation. The main character of ‘Houses in Motion’ works towards a a personal goal at the expense of meaningful social contact, moving from life to death with minimal impact on the world around him. Most chilling of all is ‘Listening Wind’, on which Byrne depicts a man driven to extreme recourse by American colonialism. Over creeping, squealing melodies and clipped percussion, we hear of Mojique, whose destructive conspiracy is actually far more sympathetic than the caustic isolationism of the loner in ‘Houses in Motion’. The album wraps with the Joy Division-echoing drone of ‘The Overload’; a groan of exhaustion and resignation which sounds moments from giving out completely.
Eno may have had a point in some regard. Remain in Light certainly seems to revel in musical creation, marvelling at the range and brilliance of the styles and sounds it pays homage to. But at its core, it also seems to acknowledge the broken systems it was forged under, and each bane it draws attention to (consumerism, oppression, the drive into self-imposed isolation) remains unyieldingly salient to this day. 35 years ago, Byrne stepped into the recording booth and wailed about the choking capacity of an America whose moral compass was perceived to be spinning wildly out of line. In 2015, western politics only incite scepticism, disillusion, and monstrously violent projections of outrage to greater and more chilling degrees. As has been the case for decades, a major percentage of the population is left unheeded. Voices are still being rebuffed and rebuked, identities blotted out like faces beneath garish digital scribbles. And the heat goes on.
Posted on May 25, 2015, in 25 Masterworks, The Music World and tagged 1980, 25 Masterworks, Born Under Punches, Brian Eno, Crosseyed and Painless, David Byrne, Listening Wind, Once in a Lifetime, Remain in Light, Talking Heads, The Heat Goes On. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.