COME 1985, Talking Heads were in an unlikely ascendancy. Having refined their artistic pop sensibilities in Remain in Light and commercial breakthrough Speaking in Tongues, David Byrne’s troupe of polyrhythmic weirdos established themselves as one of the most fascinating (and properly fucking great) acts of the 80s. 1984’s Stop Making Sense, their concert film directed by Jonathan Demme, remains one of (if not the) finest example of the genre, demonstrating the band at the joyous peak of their live powers.
And then they stopped touring, scrapped the Afrobeats and went back to basics, ‘cos Little Creatures is probably the closest they’ve come to repeating Talking Heads: 77. That first album, awash with a punkish snarl amidst the starry-eyed pop goodness, lends its edge to Little Creatures, where we find Byrne singing about making children and concluding, “I’ve seen sex and I think it’s okay.” Normality, at least in the relative sense of the term, suits Byrne just fine.
And yet there’s plenty of the anxious, paranoid Heads that came to life so vividly in 77. ‘Give Me Back My Name’, with its creeping bassline and spoken-word verses, is an insistent, dread-laden track that brightens up in the chorus. Byrne’s lyrics are typically vague, but here they sound like they’re hinting toward something much deeper instead of relying on obscurity, as is sometimes the case in Talking Heads’ discography.
The same, jittery tone is made in ‘Television Man’. Chris Frantz’s offbeat drums and Tina Weymouth’s slap bass inform Byrne’s lyrics of televisual infatuation, a satirical take on the monolith of modern living rooms in the vein of Bowie’s ‘TVC 15’. The album’s longest track (the only one over five minutes long) is also its most indulgent, its centrepiece a call-and-response between Byrne, his backing singers and brassy horns, segueing into an lengthy keyboard interlude.
‘Television Man’ comes closest to the rampant experimentation of middle-era Heads, but boundary-pushing is present elsewhere on the album. ‘Road to Nowhere’ features dreamy choral harmonies and an extended accordion-and-brass-lead coda, its military bass drum providing enormous energy on the low end. Byrne’s enthusiastic exclamations inbetween the title refrain are infectious, as ghostly overdubs intone behind him. It’s a gorgeous, life-affirming slab of joy, its momentum suddenly halted on a single stab.
This trick is pre-empted by ‘Stay Up Late’, a delightfully weird track that takes the piss out of infant cutesiness, Byrne putting on a dark simper as he sings, “I want to make him stay up all night.” Incredibly, he doesn’t even make it sound sinister. As in other tracks, like the down-mixed stabs on ‘And She Was’, as well as the slurpy introductory notes of ‘Walk It Down’, Jerry Harrison’s keyboards are integral, giving this otherwise simple song an added layer of complexity.
Complexity informs ‘Walk It Down’, where steel guitar glitters between the verses and backing vocals chime in the chorus, Weymouth’s bass walking in an unsteady gait. It recalls 77 opener ‘Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town’ in its smiling funk, but the addition of hammered bells and Jumbotron keys over Byrne’s choppy guitar makes ‘Walk It Down’ a more ambitious project by far (but, sadly, no steelpans).
‘Perfect World’ is an innately danceable beauty that sounds like an alternate dimension Frankie Valli B-side. Weymouth is at her best here, her bass providing the central melody line in lieu of the rigid guitar and key figures. “What’cha doin’in myyy house?” Byrne intones, his whoops and hollers an infectious invitation. The image of domestic bliss is mirrored in the offbeat ‘Creatures of Love’, a natural companion piece to ‘Stay Up Late’ that sees Byrne sing of sex’s ability to “make these little creatures come to life”.
‘The Lady Don’t Mind’ is a brief return to the polyrhythms and Afrobeat of previous albums, but coated in a lilting pop veneer, rendered more accessible by shimmering production and Byrne’s unobtrusive delivery. It’s a fitting indication of the album’s overall direction, where the jam sessions and Brian Eno experimentation in the producer’s booth were phased out for well-rehearsed, pre-written nuggets.
Little Creatures saw Byrne and co tease out the populist aesthetic that had always lurked beneath the madness. They didn’t so much abandon the avant-garde as streamline it, and there are enough weird moments and strange implementation of instruments to signify this as a Talking Heads record. But it is a pop album through and through, demonstrated by its multi-platinum sales and its status as highest-selling Heads album. There’s no reduction here, only floor-fillers.
Pop or no pop, Talking Heads set the example for intellectual stimulation in popular music, and they did it with their tongues in their cheeks and a heaving dance floor. Let’s dance, indeed.