Monday, February 18, 2013
Top 50 Albums of All Time, #24 - Talking Heads, 1977-80
After several weeks of trying to nitpick the differences between the Talking Heads' first four albums, I've reached the conclusion that to take any one of them out of the context of what the band accomplished in the late 1970s would be a mistake. Each one of the albums has its own distinct identity, but together they form a cohesive whole, and paint a picture of a band that over the course of a four-year period, figured out exactly what it wanted to do, and achieved it with spectacular results.
Listening to the debut album, Talking Heads '77, is what it feels like to read the first book by a great novelist. All the pieces are there - the talent, the musicianship, the songwriting - all that it lacks is a sympathetic editor who can pull all of those pieces together and help the artist realize their potential and their vision.
With More Songs About Buildings and Food, the band found that editor in producer Brian Eno. As Robert Christgau wrote at the time, Eno and the Heads were the ideal producer-artist collaboration, and you can hear his contributions in the record's every groove. If anything was lacking on the debut, it was a sense of sound - and love him or hate him, one thing that Brian Eno can do very well is create a distinctive sound. Where the music on the debut sounded a little flat, on the sophomore effort it is full and distinctive.
On Fear of Music, David Byrne the songwriter and the band as musicians went in a completely different direction, but one that was no less successful. Even more than "Psycho Killer," the songs on Fear of Music were insular, jittery and sometimes even a little scary (just listen to "Animals" and "Drugs," next time you have a chance). At the time it came out, I remember telling a classmate that it should have been called "Dance Music for Neurotics." Christgau didn't like it quite as much, but Lester Bangs loved it even more - which probably tells you everything you need to know.
And even with all that - three great albums, all critically acclaimed, and even a radio hit with a definitive cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" - little the band had done before (with the possible exception of "I Zimbra" on Fear of Music) was sufficient to prepare one for the epic soundscapes of Remain in Light. I freely admit that I didn't get it at first, giving it a listen and wondering what the hell had happened - yes, I could hear David Byrne's voice in there, but this was so far outside the "Talking Heads mold" that it was a little off-putting (and besides, "The River" came out on the very same day, and it was such a rich feast that there was little time left for anything else).
It was only when I saw the Heads in concert - the first tour with the "expanding band" concept that would become legendary a few years later with the release of "Stop Making Sense" - that everything began to click. What seemed expansive just two years earlier now seemed downright tame, as the band and Eno took the music well beyond the boundaries of punk or new wave, or whatever you wanted to call it, and created something that, to these ears, was unique.
The band would go on, without Eno, to record two more excellent albums, but nothing would ever quite match the excitement and the innovation of the first four. But even if their career had ended in 1980, their election to the Hall of Fame would have been secure.