Words About Music
Talking Heads “Remain in Light”
Before all the members of Talking Heads grew to hate lead singer and songwriter David Byrne, they were looking to create an album that felt more like a group project and less like David Byrne and Company. Amidst a bit of personal strife and speculation over whether they’d continue as a band, they drew inspiration from African rhythms, songs, literature, and religion. With that inspiration came their best, most cohesive, most forward-thinking album “Remain in Light.” With ambient lord and David Byrne collaborator Brian Eno handling the production, “Remain in Light” came and was far ahead of its time. I think it can be properly appreciated now, though, as it’s one of the best albums the 1980s produced.
“Remain in Light” is 8 songs filled with complex polyrhythms, strange sounds, funky beats, and a veil of mystery layered on top. It’s as “new wave” as Talking Heads had ever been with David Byrne’s brand of stream-of-consciousness lyricism and a heavy amount of experimentation. Every song has the same sort of unpredictable sounds involved with different types of effects. I have a hard time believing that humans created these sounds since they just sound like things that already exist together naturally. If the jungle had a natural soundtrack, it would be most of the instrumentals on this album. Alas, the talented members of this group came together and made music happen with instruments most post-punk and new wave acts never would have though to use.
Unlike a lot of Talking Heads releases, the focal point is not David Byrne’s lyrics or his vocal performance. Even on the album’s one known radio hit “Once In A Lifetime,” one can still enjoy the song’s textures without having any idea what Byrne is saying, although the “Same as it ever was” part continues to be memorable. The lyrics that are immediately discernible don’t really lay out any sort of plot or characters, but that’s to be expected. With this album, Byrne had a notoriously tough time coming up with lyrics to sing over these songs, but he eventually found inspiration from the same place the band as a whole found inspiration for the sounds: Africa. And that definitely shows.
Talking Heads were never a very normal band and “Remain in Light” isn’t a very normal album. Priests are parodied, the notion of power is questioned, pop culture’s influence on the feeble minded is poeticized, and a terrorist attack on America is made into a seemingly beautiful song with a catchy chorus. This album isn’t very long, but it’s stuffed to the brim with subject matter that only improves what could have been a dark, twisted instrumental album. “Remain in Light” is nothing if not poetic, and while it’s not exactly a radio-friendly record, it is still a masterpiece of sounds and words alike.
This album is actually pretty ballsy in nearly every aspect. Who’d’ve thought that the beloved group of weirdos that sang that “Psycho Killer” song would band together (no pun intended) and tap into their African roots (citation needed) and create a social commentary a hundred times better than Heart of Darkness? Before Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” there was “Remain in Light,” a terrifying, hilarious, trippy sonic adventure with so many layers of instrumentation it’s hard to believe it’s been over 30 years since it was released. The production is excellent, the lyrics are excellent, the music is excellent, and no amount of mediocre releases afterwards could tarnish the legacy that this album cemented.