And as things fell apart/Nobody paid much attention,” sings David Byrne on “(Nothing but) Flowers,” the energetic high-life romp that is the first single from the extraordinary new Talking Heads album, Naked. Byrne, however, is paying close attention — not that it’s likely to make much difference. What he sees is a world in chaos, endangered by political madness, torn between animal instincts and the urge to civilize, teetering on the edge of apocalypse. As the album progresses, its mood shifts from cheerful to foreboding. Stylistically bold and intellectually provocative, Naked is a dizzying and disturbing piece of work.
After the pop-song concision of Little Creatures and True Stories — which, although they were released a year apart, were mostly recorded at the same time — Naked marks a return to the more open-ended, groove-oriented style the Heads defined on Remain in Light. And the band has once again expanded its lineup. Recording in Paris, the Heads and producer Steve Lillywhite drew inspiration from that city’s rich musical crosscurrents while importing collaborators as diverse as former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, keyboardist Wally Badarou, arranger Angel Fernandez and steel guitarist and Dobro player Eric Weisberg. Wilder still, a full horn section blows on three of the ten tracks. These additions to the core Heads — Byrne, keyboardist Jerry Harrison, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz — helped generate an album that fruitfully intermingles Latin rhythms and Afro-pop, funk and soul, avant-garde daring and big-band power.
The vital human harmony suggested by the international band of players on Naked is the strongest counterpoint to the album’s pervasive themes of alienation and dread. The record opens with “Blind,” a percussive, Afro-flavored track that instantly strikes a note of semiotic upheaval. Over an insinuating groove, Byrne chants, “Signs/Signs are lost/Signs disappeared/Turn invisible.” That breakdown in order is underscored by the song’s imagery of violence and confusion.
Byrne also continues to explore some key themes that have run through his work since Talking Heads: 77 — emotion versus reason, nature versus civilization. On “Totally Nude,” propelled by Yves N’Djock’s skittering guitar, Abdou M’Boup’s percussion and Weisberg’s bright pedal steel, Byrne weaves a playful fantasy of a natural paradise far removed from the madhouse world of “Blind” or the straitjacketed straight world envisioned in “Mr. Jones,” the album’s second song. “I’m a nature boy,” Byrne chirps on “Totally Nude” as he extols a zany dreamland of “rocks and trees and physical culture.”
The equally funny “(Nothing but) Flowers” picks up this theme but sharpens its edge. Despite the song’s Edenic imagery, nature comes to represent its own variety of chaos. In a manner that recalls the paranoia of Fear of Music, Byrne, a true aesthete, finds nature’s profusion threatening. “If this is paradise,” he brays, “I wish I had a lawnmower.” Later, he complains poignantly: “I miss the honky tonks/Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens…. I dream of cherry pies/Candy bars and chocolate chip cookies.”
Undercurrents of menace upset the lulling dreaminess of “The Democratic Circus,” a stern indictment of the passivity encouraged by consumer capitalism. “And when the ringmaster calls our names,” Byrne croons, “we’ll be the first ones to go … to sleep/Stealing all our dreams/Dreams for sale/They sell ’em back to you.” The chilling track “The Facts of Life” is something like Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents set to music. Byrne sees us as limited either to a rational existence in which people are “machines of love/Strong in body, strong in mind/A love machine with the facts of life” or to uncontrolled animal excess: “Someday we’ll live on Venus/And men will walk on Mars/But we will still be monkeys/Down deep inside…. Then we will close our eyes/And let our instincts guide us/Oh oh oh oh no.” In the face of these unacceptable choices, Byrne observes, with a startlingly cool matter-of-factness, “I’m afraid that God has no master plan.”
On the peppy “Mommy Daddy You and I” and the horn-powered “Big Daddy,” Byrne suggests that the family — ordinarily an image of refuge and nurture — offers no haven in this heartless universe. Big Daddy — with Big Brother lurking in the wings — emerges as a rather sinister figure, and the family in “Mommy Daddy You and I” drifts dangerously in an alien environment: “Making changes day by day/And we still ain’t got no plan/How we gonna make our way/In this foreign land?”
Johnny Marr’s propulsive guitar ups the intensity of “Cool Water,” which ends the album. Surreal and fragmented, the song offers pleas for human fellowship. Byrne insists that “their skin is the same as yours” and prays for “one dream for all.” Unfortunately, “the human battle stations” are manned, “and the big one’s coming in.” Like “The Democratic Circus” and “Big Daddy,” “Cool Water” closes with images of deluge and drowning.
The Chinese proverb “If there is no tiger in the mountains, the monkey will be king” is printed on the jacket of Naked, and a framed portrait of a monkey adorns the cover. The human race consists of some pretty cool people, Naked seems to be saying, but it’s got a very destructive monkey on its back. Human survival is not guaranteed. With humor and good-hearted-ness, hope and fear, Talking Heads contemplate a world on the eve of destruction on this important record — and leave wide open the question of what the dawn will bring.