Serious funk

I’ve finally got my hands on Talking Heads’ magnum opus, 1980’s Remain In Light, and my god it is funky. The first half of the album is built solely on repeating grooves, over which Byrne sings and mumbles about all manner of emotional and societal disconnection, while atonal squawks and whirring noises swirl around the ether. Many would regard Brian Eno’s great production feat as being U2’s The Joshua Tree – still the only album by said band that I can really palate – but I’d be willing to stake a claim for this masterpiece.

What struck me immediately about the album is just how brash it sounds, despite the sophistication of the music and lyrics lurking beneath. Exploding in with “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On), the pace and energy never really lets up. What sounds like a modem enters the song halfway through, with a weird, dazzling solo; African percussion fills up all the spare air, creating multiple layers of syncopation; towards the end, Byrne’s vocal tics resemble someone with epilepsy or Tourette’s – behaviour echoed by the frontman in the video for the album’s centrepiece, “Once In A Lifetime”.

The second half of Remain In Light takes on a more chilled-out vibe, using disconcerting washes of synth and discordant brass to create more tension. Finally, in the album’s closer, “The Overload”, we find a strange, Joy Division-inspired funeral march, which crawls at snail’s pace alongside waves of buzzing synth bass and undertones of keyboards. According to the album’s Wikipedia article, “The Overload” was indeed the band’s attempt at replicating the Salford quartet’s enviable sonic aesthetic, without ever having heard any of their music. It’s testament to the band’s songwriting variety and multi-talented instrumentation that the experiment works so well – far from sounding like a novelty party piece, it book-ends the album perfectly, sending a final farewell of anxiety to the listener in much the same way as “Decades” does on Joy Division’s parting shot, Closer.

Remain In Light, then, explores both sides of Talking Heads’ lyrical and musical concerns – it is at times deeply life-affirming; at other moments mid-life-crisis depicting. It is also perhaps the truest example of a collision of black music and white music, created at a time when the two disciplines never felt further apart. In that respect, we must of course thank the pioneering inroads made by Messrs. Byrne and Eno, which led to such a work. Last year, people heard Vampire Weekend and thought of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Though Remain In Light is undoubtedly a darker work than Vampire Weekend, maybe it is the more important antecedent in providing musical inspiration.

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