David Byrne’s resemblance to Anthony Perkins would be remarkable even if he hadn’t called attention to it by entitling a song “Psycho Killer.” Onstage, his head lurching to a rhythm his rigid body doesn’t recognize, Byrne is a dead ringer for Perkins’ Norman Bates: clean-cut, boyish (his songs are full of boys and girls but bereft of men and women) and batty. Movie critic Robin Wood’s comment on Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic, Psycho, applies equally well to the music of Byrne’s band, Talking Heads: “It is part of the essence of the film to make us feel the continuity between the normal and the abnormal: between the compulsive behavior of Marion [Crane] and the psychotic behavior of Norman Bates.” Or, as Tony Perkins tells Janet Leigh shortly before slaughtering her in the shower: “We’re all in our private trap.”
For Talking Heads, the trap is the Cartesian disjunction between mind and body, and rarely — if e’er — the twain shall meet. Byrne’s own head is distanced from his body by a long elastic neck, and he sings as if he were being strangled by a tightly knotted tie (from Brooks Brothers, no doubt). His high-pitched voice seems to emanate entirely from his straining vocal chords, not at all from his diaphragm. Quite literally, Byrne is a Talking Head. And his group’s compulsively rocking beat — martial yet nervous, halfway between a goose step and St. Vitus’ dance — is exciting, but seldom sexy and never cathartic. Though rock & roll usually celebrates release, Talking Heads dramatizes repression. If they’re an anomaly, they’re also one of the very best as well as most interesting American rock bands performing and recording today.
Byrne’s lyrics obsessively juxtapose the irreconcilable, nonnegotiable demands of the head and the heart. In “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town,” on Talking Heads: 77, the group’s first album, he piped:
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Jet pilot gone out of control
Ship captain run aground
Stockbroker make a bad investment
When love has come to town.
Where, where is my common sense?
How did I get in a jam like this?
On More Songs about Buildings and Food, David Byrne sings the word feelingssssss with a puppy’s yelp that turns into a snaky hiss. Even the ostensibly jubilant “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” hurtles to an abrupt coitus interruptus: “But first, show me what you can do!” If, in one song, Byrne chides the girls for ignoring the boys (“Girls, they’re getting into abstract analysis”), in most of the others, Byrne himself seems frantically to be staving off amorous involvement: “I’ve got to get to work now” (the traditional male equivalent of “Not tonight, honey — I’ve got a headache”). Indeed, the word work recurs throughout the record as the singer both pushes and parodies the Protestant ethic. (Not since the Four Freshmen has there been a group as Protestant and downright preppie as Talking Heads.) Love wreaks havoc on the rational, workaday world, and David Byrne’s comic cold shoulder recalls the more strenuous resistance of Joni Mitchell, so many of whose songs have expressed a similar fear that love will deflect her artistic career.
Love and work, of course, is what Freud said all of us need, but on More Songs about Buildings and Food, Byrne appears able to imagine the proper equilibrium only in “Found a Job,” wherein a bickering couple’s relationship improves while collaborating on television scripts. He sings about this improvement with considerable sarcasm, though, and elsewhere on the LP, love and logic are at loggerheads. The tension between the two, like the similar tension Bryan Ferry creates between sentimentality and sophistication, is excruciating, and when it snaps in the album’s final song, “The Big Country” (a title taken from a line in Ferry’s “Prairie Rose”), Byrne is bounced into the void. Flying over the United States, he looks down with regret and revulsion at life below: “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.” Yet, at the same time, he’s “tired of traveling” and wants “to be somewhere.” Like a hijacked airplane that no nation will permit to land, the singer seems doomed to fly until his fuel is exhausted and he plummets to a fiery death.
Sound gloomy? Well it would be if Byrne didn’t see hilarity in tight-assed hysteria and laugh at his Puritan pratfalls. Or if coproducer Brian Eno, once Bryan Ferry’s colleague in Roxy Music, hadn’t crammed so much humor and energy into each song. The cerebral, brittle sound of Talking Heads: 77 has been fleshed out with supple synthesizer fills, and Chris Frantz’ drums and the synthesized percussion leap boldly out of the mix. Almost every cut has a percussive gimmick — handclaps, clattering rim shots, a heavily echoed backbeat — that rivets the attention, punctuating the melody or hammering home the words.
These arrangements bustle without sounding cluttered. Whenever the agitated jangle of guitars starts to nag, it slips into something mellifluous. Thus “The Girls Want to Be with the Girls” shuttles back and forth between the staccato attack of a mid-Sixties garage band and the playful lilt of a nursery rhyme. “Stay Hungry” manages to meld James Brown, the early Beatles (“Things We Said Today”) and a “progressive”-rock synthesizer. The eclecticism of More Songs about Buildings and Food — its witty distillations of disco and reggae rhythms, its reconciliation of “art” and punk rock — is masterful, The music represents a triumph over diversity, while the words spell out defeat by disparities between mind and body, head and heart.
This, presumably, is why Talking Heads make music — and superb music at that. Because talk is cheap.