BY 1979, TALKING Heads had already created two incredible, rhythmic, funky albums. Talking Heads ’77 gave us the ‘Psycho Killer’, the radio bait that would have people attempting to sing in French for years to come. More Songs About Buildings and Food combined influences of reggae, new wave and punk rock into a wonderful album that’s often overlooked. More Songs… also marked the Head’s first collaboration with producer Brian Eno. With Fear of Music, the band continued this collaboration whilst moving away from their existing identity as a new wave band.
One quickly noticeable feature of Fear of Music is the lack of any particular hooks. Talking Heads abandoned the catchiness found in the likes of ‘Found a Job’ and their cover of Al Green’s ‘Take Me Too The River’. Even the catchier tracks on this album lack a certain radio friendly attitude. With Talking Heads wished to be seen as something other than a ‘singles machine’. Losing the look of a band lead by a frontman, they focussed on songs based on rhythm, with almost a disco like influence seeping out from between the layers of African percussion and shredded guitar.
Opener ‘I Zimbra’, for example, incorporates a world music approach that emphasises the eclectic use of instrumentation and the lack of a distinct voice. Already the band was showing how they were to be viewed as Talking Heads, not David Byrne and backing band. Indeed, the musicianship of Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison builds up the bulk of the atmosphere on this album. The prominent bass lines drive the songs forward, such as on ‘Cities’, with one of Weymouth’s best riffs to date. The added electronic and keyboard effects give an eerie sound to the album on the whole. See ‘Drugs’ and ‘Mind’ for some of the weirder and out of character songs from Talking Heads.
Despite trying to detract away from being a fronted band, David Byrne’s vocal and lyrical work is still stellar on this album. His jittery, bob-stop voice blends seamlessly with the looped rhythms of the band while using them to compliment each other. His lyrical topics are simple; paper, air, animals, drugs, the mind… In a self interview from 1984, Byrne stated he liked to writer about small things, and no album expresses this better than Fear of Music. The tiniest dissection of these random topics takes the song to a surrealist and dystopian world.
Perhaps one of the bigger tracks from the album, ‘Life During Wartime’, is an exception to Byrne’s otherwise simplistic narrative. In this track, he casts himself as a man lost in the world void of luxuries. Like the other tracks on Fear of Music, ‘Life During Wartime’ keeps the surreal tone, but Byrne weaves a story throughout. The result is one of the best and most upbeat songs on the album.
Once you combine the efforts of all four bands members, plus the excellent production of Brian Eno, Fear of Music makes it clear that Talking Heads were a solid unit. This album abandons the idea of standout songs to make an album that works not just as a concept, but as a statement on what music can be. It’s like 41 minutes on acid.
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