Speaking in Tongues, Talking Heads’ first studio release in three years, is the album that finally obliterates the thin line separating arty white pop music and deep black funk. Picking up where their 1980 Afro-punk fusion Remain in Light left off, this LP consummates the Heads’ marriage of art-school intellect and dance-floor soul. Imbued with an adventurous spirit that’s as close to Television’s Marquee Moon as it is to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Grand Master Flash’s “The Message” and Nigerian high-life music, Speaking in Tongues gives new meaning to the word crossover.
The impish “Making Flippy-Floppy,” the second track on side one, is an immediate tip-off that something new is going on here. “Everybody, get in line!” commands singer-guitarist David Byrne as the Heads step straight into a brassy strut counted off by a scratchy guitar figure and Chris Frantz’ martial drumming. Ominous synth-bass effects undulate beneath the surface of the beat before Byrne cuts into a bright, saucy chorus that would make Prince envious. Wobbly, whining synthesizers and a walking bass-and-piano line keep up the funk, while violinist L. Shankar shoots the whole affair into a strange Far Eastern space with his brief raga-like solo.
The Heads have never cut the funk into finer, more fluent pieces. Nor have they ever displayed such a sense of purpose and playfulness (check out, for example, the murky boogie and Byrne’s comic John Lee Hooker growl in “Swamp”). One detects here the influence of Frantz and his wife, bassist Tina Weymouth: on holiday from the Heads, they took the third-world forms and urban-funk gestures of Remain in Light and dressed them up with pop spangle and good humor on their Tom Tom Club LP.
Jerry Harrison’s experiments with polyrhythmic keyboard layers on his solo LP, The Red and the Black, have also been incorporated into Speaking in Tongues. Along with P-Funkster Bernie Worrell and reggae keyboard specialist Wally Badarou, Harrison fortifies the beat with ahem color and contrapuntal muscle without complicating it.
But it is David Byrne’s propulsive score for Twyla Tharp’s 1981 dance piece The Catherine Wheel that may be the most important influence on Speaking in Tongues. The severe constraints of matching music to movement–of making music inspire expressive movement — forced Byrne to write and arrange his Catherine Wheel score with both crisp dramatic precision and provocative imagistic flair.
The nine songs on Speaking in Tongues — the group’s first self-produced studio album — demonstrate that same precision and flair in remarkable combinations. On the surface, “Girlfriend Is Better” is a brassy, straightforward bump number sparked by Byrne’s animated bragging (“I’ve got a girlfriend that’s better than that She has the smoke in her eyes She’s comin’ up, goin’ right through my heart She’s gonna give me a surprise”) and by the kind of rapid, zigzagging synth squeals so common on rap and funk records. But the edgy paranoia smoldering underneath (“We’re being taken for a ri-i-ide again,” a double-tracked Byrne brays woefully at one point) is colorfully articulated by guitar and percussion figures that burble along in a fatback echo, sounding like a sink backing up.
“I Get Wild/Wild Gravity,” Byrne’s unsettling account of isolation and disorientation, alludes to the funky voodoo reggae of Grace Jones and is heightened by arty dub intrusions and electronic handclaps. “Burning Down the House” is busier in its rhythmic design: tumbling drum breaks punctuate Frantz’ authoritative pace, while springy synthesizer pings and the desolate chime of a keyboard solo rebound off Byrne’s brisk acoustic-guitar strumming.
But the complexity of these songs doesn’t keep any of them from being great dance tracks. They are all rooted in a shrewd yet elastic sense of rhythm, thereby avoiding the brittle, plastic feel of such glorified disco troupes as the Thompson Twins or Spandau Ballet. And unlike, say, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne’s academic safari with Brian Eno, Speaking in Tongues is an art-rock album that doesn’t flaunt its cleverness; it’s obvious enough in the alluring hooks, deviant rhythms and captivating mix of rehable funk gimmicks and intellectual daring.
The real art here is the incorporation of disparate elements from pop, punk and R&B into a coherent, celebratory dance ethic that dissolves notions of color and genre in smiles and sweat. A new model for great party albums to come. Speaking in Tongues is likely to leave you doing just that.