Because Talking Heads have spoiled us with the richness of their music for nine years, we have come to expect a bold advance with each new album. So what is it here? Gregorian disco? Or perhaps electro-shakuhachi, or Indo-punk? Actually, Little Creatures is a retreat from the avant-garde, a retreat that begins immediately in the cover art. On past albums the band wore its art-school training on its sleeve, devising experimental graphics for its LP Jackets. On the back of Little Creatures, though, they are dressed like privates in the Salvation Army, while on the front, Southern folk artist Howard Finster has scribbled a cartoonish profile of the band, showing head Head David Byrne in boots and BVDs, supporting a globe on his back. (It brings to mind a comment Pete Townshend made to Relling Stone three years ago: “I like New York, but I don’t see a hell of a lot happening. David Byrne has got the weight of the whole thing on his shoulders.”) Inside the jacket Byrne and company present an album that tries to shrug off their weighty reputation. The songs are simple and clearly rooted in pop structures, and Byrne injects a feeling of lyrical giddiness that almost makes this sound like a different band.
The most obvious difference on Little Creatures is the skeletal music. The opening track, “And She Was,” is a bouncy tune about levitation that wouldn’t have been out of place on the band’s debut album. After years of thick studio experimentation with echo and delay, it’s startling to hear again Chris Frantz’ stiff drumming stripped of ricocheting polyrhythms, and Byrne’s clipped, ringing guitar riff polishes the bright chorus to a cleanness we thought they had discarded. There are no mountainous overdubs on the album, and when the Heads do add instrumentation beyond the basic quartet — steel guitar on “Creatures of Love,” choral harmonies and Cajun accordion on “Road to Nowhere,” bits of sax and percussion throughout — it’s in a subtle way that prevents the songs from becoming genre exercises. The call-and-response bridge on “Television Man” recalls Tommy James more than Fela Kuti, indicating that the band has returned from its ethnomusicological voyage.
With the instrumentation pared to a crisp, basal role, the focus shifts back to Byrne’s lyrics. They are mostly narrative, as opposed to the cut-up imagery he has recently favored, and anyone who was surprised by the mature warmth Chrissie Hynde showed on the Pretenders’ Learning to Crawl will be amazed by what Byrne’s lyrics suggest. On “The Big Country,” some years ago, he observed the mundane details of domestic Americana and concluded, with fretful distaste, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.” But Little Creatures is the sound of David Byrne falling in love with normalcy.
We were sort of warned. Ever since Fear of Music, Talking Heads have put their weirdest song at the end of each album. On Speaking in Tongues, their last studio effort, it was “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” a warm thank-you to a lover sung with enough edgy astonishment to suggest that Byrne wasn’t entirely convinced by this romance stuff. After all, this is the same misanthrope who just a few years ago wondered, “Do people really fall in love?” But within the context of Byrne’s twitchy persona, Little Creatures is downright blissful.
It’s often dangerous to take song lyrics literally, but we know from the gossip columns that Byrne has a girlfriend, and the album is full of images of change. In “The Lady Don’t Mind,” Byrne hiccups, “I sure don’t feel the same.” And even as Tina Weymouth’s trembling bass line in “Give Me Back My Name” invokes the paranoid implosion of Fear of Music, Byrne mutters, as though in a trance, “Something has been changed in my life.” With mysterious, almost magical women inhabiting seven of the nine songs, that change sure sounds like love.
Certainly, Byrne no longer feels alienated from simple pleasures. On the goofy “Stay Up Late,” he cackles with delight in appreciation of a sleeping baby’s penis, while “Creatures of Love” concludes that sex is all right because “It makes those little creatures come to life.” “Television Man,” at six minutes easily the LP’s longest track, even places Byrne in a living room with that ultimate symbol of the American vernacular, the TV set.
After years of critical adulation for bringing high-art conceptualism to rock music, Byrne may have remembered that he originally chose music over the visual arts because of its accessibility. Everything on the album indicates that Little Creatures is a deliberate retreat from the experimentation of Talking Heads’ Eno trilogy, which earned them their reputation. As a woman informs Byrne that the couple is in a Perfect World, the singer wonders, “Am I just like the others?”
That’s bound to be the complaint about Little Creatures. Though this is a modest, enchanting album, those who equate creativity with complexity will undoubtedly dismiss it as old wave. But with the rest of the pop world still catching up to the brilliant Remain in Light, what could be more subversive than a clean and happy record? This seems to be the message of “Road to Nowhere,” the sly, bubbly single that closes the album. Byrne admits that he’s lost, but wanders happily toward nowhere because he’s got company. You can hear him smiling, and he doesn’t seem to care too much whether we follow or not.