Talking Heads’ complete studio catalog has been reissued as a strange-looking object. It’s a boxed set, sure; but until the shrink-wrap’s broken, it’s also a weapon, made of hard white plastic with sharp corners and a nice heft in the palm. As with so many things, of course, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and inside are eight albums, at least three of which were, for their time, somewhat groundbreaking importations of world music into brainy rock.
The first two Heads discs, Talking Heads: 77 and More Songs About Buildings And Food, are good enough, for what they are. The tunes are somewhat catchy, and David Byrne’s naïve yelp gives the quotidian observations of his lyrics some extra impact. But on the third disc, Fear Of Music, they start to seem like they’re onto something. They bring in Brian Eno as producer, and he tosses some “psychedelic African” ideas at them, particularly on opening cut “I Zimbra.” The band chants nonsense over a rhythm that’s busier and more interesting than almost anything they’ve played before; it sounds not only unlike their back catalog, but unlike anything else in American rock. Fear Of Music also contains one of their most anthemic songs (“Life During Wartime”) and possibly their most starkly beautiful (“Heaven”).
Remain In Light, the fourth disc in the box, is the gleaming diamond of the Talking Heads discography. It’s also the album on which their (or maybe just David Byrne’s and Brian Eno’s) fascination with African rhythms and tonalities really came to the fore. The choppy guitar chords, often provided by guest Adrian Belew (who’d backed David Bowie and King Crimson, sometimes in collaboration with Eno), stole riffs and feel from juju and Afrobeat; the female backup vocals also recalled Fela’s sardonic Greek chorus of wives and girlfriends. Peter Gabriel was working with similar ideas at the same time; there are strong links between, say, “The Overload” from Remain In Light and “San Jacinto” on Gabriel’s 1982 self-titled album (a/k/a Security). Lyrically, too, Byrne is moving out of his comfort zone of neurotic New Yorkers and their anxieties, and beginning to attempt to look at the world through others’ eyes, as on “Listening Wind,” the story of a terrorist attempting to force Americans out of his country.
After Remain In Light, though, Talking Heads retreated back<