New on Vinyl: Talking Heads – Speaking in Tongues

The phrases that most easily come to mind when I think about this album are ‘burning down the house’ for obvious reasons and the refrain of ‘stop making sense’ from the track “Girlfriend is Better” off of side A. This makes a fair bit of sense, given the former was the band’s only American top-ten hit and the fact that by David Byrne’s own admission, he made an album and created lyrics subsequently to fit the nonsense originally sung over the music composed by Talking Heads.

It is not a typical Talking Heads album given the previous prevalence of Brian Eno’s production. It is still a seminal work for the band andy Byrne in particular, in that it is as though the student has finally demonstrated a mastery of the teacher’s technique. It is more musically minimalistic than previous albums, especially if compared to Remain in Light, though lyrically it seems far more complex. Perhaps it is a commentary on the public discourse of the era, in which mass corporate communications were first beginning to make headway into the American popular discourse and create their own authority via the immediacy of their preferred medium. In another sense, perhaps it is the Talking Heads recognizing the danger of the new meta-talking head, made dangerous by combining sub-par intellect with state-of-the-art tools of communication. If the lyrics on side-A leave you confused about what exactly you’re listening to, then maybe Byrne has succeeded more than he expected.

I find the album perfectly listenable, enjoying the highs and lows, the elements of new wave, funk and reggae blending into one another, the stripped down instrumentation covering the sonic range while re-enforcing the cooperative ‘drum-circle’ spirit Byrne had explored with Eno on previous collaborations. That said, I remember the first time I listened to this album, perhaps about eight years ago, and finding it almost unbearable. It grew on me, and still does. And aside from the admissions of gibberish and nonsensical lyrics, and i can only say I agree completely with Robert Christgau in his opinion ‘Swamp’ is one of the greatest anti-Capitalist songs ever written (indeed, the album is exceptionally political and highly critical of early-1980s American society) and This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) is perhaps one of the greatest pro-Love songs of all time. I couldn’t agree more with that last bit too – it is an exceptional love song; sincere, timeless and real.

Key Tracks:
– Girlfriend is Better
– Slippery People
– Swamp
– Moon Rocks
– Pull Up the Roots

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