Seldom in pop-music history has there been a larger gap between what black and white audiences are listening to than there is right now. While blacks are almost entirely uninterested in the clipped, rigid urgency of the New Wave, it’s doubtful that more than a small percentage of Rolling Stone’s predominantly white readership knows anything at all about the summer’s only piece of culture-defining music, Kurtis Blow’s huge hit, “The Breaks.” Such a situation is both sad and ironic, because rarely have the radical edges of black and white music come closer to overlapping. On one hand, the Gang of Four utilize their bass guitar every bit as prominently and starkly as the curt bass figures that prod the spoken verses in “The Breaks.” On the other, Chic producers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards choose to make Diana Ross sound as sullen and alienated as Deborah Harry. None of this has escaped the notice of Talking Heads, however, and Remain in Light is their brave, absorbing attempt to locate a common ground in today’s divergent, often hostile musical community.
From the first, Talking Heads’ contribution to the avant-punk scene they helped create was their emphasis on rhythm over beat. While the Ramones’ rockers banged and Blondie’s blared, the Heads’ early songs pulsed, winding their way past jitteriness to achieve the compelling tension that defined a particular moment in rock & roll history — a moment when white rock fans wanted to dance so badly, and yet were so intimidated by the idea, that they started hopping straight up and down for instant relief. By 1978, punk and disco had divided the pop audience. What did Talking Heads do? They recorded Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.” The gesture was a heroic one.
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Despite David Byrne’s vocal restraint and certain puritanical tendencies in his lyrics to value work over pleasure (“Artists Only,” “Don’t Worry about the Government”), Talking Heads never stopped learning from the sensuous music that existed in a world parallel to theirs. On 1979’s Fear of Music, they made a defiant connection with funk and disco in “I Zimbra” and “Life during Wartime,” both of which aid in preparing us for Remain in Light’s startling avant-primitivism.
On Remain in Light, rhythm takes over. Each of the eight compositions adheres to a single guitar-drum riff repeated endlessly, creating what funk musicians commonly refer to as a groove. A series of thin, shifting layers is then added: more jiggly percussion, glancing and contrasting guitar figures, singing by Byrne that represents a sharp and exhilarating break with the neurotic and intentionally wooden vocals that had previously characterized all Talking Heads albums.
Though the tunes take their time (side one has just three cuts), nobody steps out to solo here. There isn’t any elaboration of the initial unifying riff either. Because of this, these songs resemble the African music that the band has taken great pains to acknowledge as Remain in Light’s guiding structure. (An even bolder example of the African influence is My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an LP recorded by David Byrne and Brian Eno that may never be issued in its ideal form. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts uses fixed staccato rhythm patterns in much the same way that Eno’s early solo work built whole compositions around simple synthesizer clusters. In place of formal singing, the album substitutes “found” vocals: e.g., random voices taped off the radio. Indeed, one of these voices, that of evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman, threw the entire project into legal limbo with a threat to sue unless it was removed. Sire has indicated that the disc will probably be remixed, but no release date has been set. Which is too bad, because My Life in the Bush of Ghosts enhances the aesthetic of Remain in Light, and at least one of its sections, “Shaking with My Voice,” is as strange and thrilling a piece of music as either Byrne or Eno has ever made.)
In addition to its African influences, Remain in Light also flashes the ecstatic freedom of current American funk, across which any number of complex emotions and topics can roam. In both “Born under Punches (the Heat Goes On)” and “Crosseyed and Painless,” the rhythm lurches about while always moving forward, thrust ahead by the tough, serene beat of the bass and percussion. Throughout, instruments are so tightly meshed that it’s often difficult to pick out what you’re hearing—or even who’s playing. As part of their let’s-rethink-this-music attitude, Talking Heads occasionally play one another’s instruments, and guests as disparate as Robert Palmer and Nona Hendryx are enlisted. (By now, of course, producer Brian Eno can be considered a fifth Head.) Far from being confusing, however, such density contributes greatly to the mesmerizing power exerted by these elaborate dance tunes.
Though you can follow, to some extent, the story lines of, say, “Listening Wind” (in which an Indian stores up weaponry to launch an assault on plundering Americans) and the spoken fable, “Seen and Not Seen,” Remain in Light’s lyrics are more frequently utilized to describe or embody abstract concepts. Thus, beneath the wild dance patterns of “Crosseyed and Painless,” there lurks a dementedly sober disquisition on the nature of facts that culminates in a hilarious, rapidly recited list of characteristics (“Facts are simple and facts are straight/Facts are lazy and facts are late… “) that could go on forever —and probably does, since the song fades out before the singer can finish reading what’s on the lyric sheet. Elsewhere, strings of words convey meaning only through Byrne’s intonation and emphasis: his throaty, conspiratorial murmur in “Houses in Motion” adds implications you can’t extract from lines as flyaway as “I’m walking a line— I’m thinking about empty motion.”
In all of this lies a solution to a problem that was clearly bothering David Byrne on Fear of Music: how to write rock lyrics that don’t yield to easy analysis and yet aren’t pretentious. Talking Heads’ most radical attempt at an answer was the use of da-daist Hugo Ball’s nonsense words as a mock-African chant in “I Zimbra.” The strategy on Remain in Light is much more complicated and risky. In compositions like “Born under Punches” and “Crosseyed and Painless,” phrases are suggested and measured, repeated and turned inside out, in reaction to the spins and spirals of their organizing riff-melodies. At no time does the music change to accommodate the completion of a conventional pop-song sentiment or clever line.
Once in a while, the experiments backfire on the experimenters. Both “The Great Curve” and “The Overload” are droning drags, full of screeching guitar noise that’s more freaked-out than felt. Usually, however, the gambler’s aesthetic operating within Remain in Light yields scary, funny music to which you can dance and think, think and dance, dance and think, ad infinitum.