Talking Heads - Remain in Light

The 80s - the sound of disco music chewing at the average mid-twenty dancing awkwardly to the new romantics like Bowie and the girl whose name is Rio. What was a second British Invasion was seen differently from a 90s born perspective. As the Bee Gees were starting to wear off, a less than popular new wave band still hid behind art rock. And its new wave, the term in itself, which started a revolutionary genre, spanning four decades and featuring some of the most talented musicians post-1970. It was very much an American affair. Sure, the Brits had Elvis Costello and The Cure, but across the pond, an art form was being born. It's not every year a Remain in Light comes about. So great care has been issued in regards to reviewing Talking Heads' hugely innovative fourth studio album, as it deserves more respect than Frantz, Harrison, Weymouth, and Byrne could ever imagine. 

Remain in Light is 40 minutes in length with just eight tracks, like a C.S. Lewis wardrobe of African-inspired rhythms put on a platter of post-CBGB punk. Throughout this 40 minute masterpiece (and it is, a masterpiece) Talking Heads experiment with sounds introduced partly to them by producer Brian Eno. Having already worked together extensively, Eno found a fit that will forever associate the Talking Heads name with the British ambient artist - much like with Bowie's Berlin Trilogy, or with U2 in the 80s. Eno and Byrne collaborated in 1979 to record My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which was later released in 1981. It was in these recording sessions where Byrne’s future in worldbeat was created. The eager sampling was unique for the late 70s / early 80s, and Talking Heads together would go on to re-create these sessions in 1979 for Remain in Light. The outcome was 40 minutes, and eight tracks of looped material combining genres and making noises nobody had heard before.  

It started with the Fear of Music opener "I Zimbra", which explored worldbeat, in particular African instrumentation. It spurred on the experimentation Talking Heads were destined to explore - "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)" was born. Polyrhythms pave the way on Remain in Light - the foundations of experimental music with popular twists. The album opener has all the positive effects of Talking Heads' previous record Fear of Music, but with that powerful purge of remembrance, and go-to sounds which make you remember, and never forget what just occurred. The bouncing bass riff, the somewhat light percussion, and funk guitar - all looped creating this vast soundscape of an instrumental, sitting in front of Byrne’s vocals rather than behind. It's a test to count how many samples are used for each vocal, each synthesizer, each guitar solo, and each clipping - remarkably pieced together by Eno. Its several songs in one - the essential creative pull for creating music with polyrhythms over a highly political lyrical presence. "Crosseyed and Painless" develops on the sounds explored in the album opener. Here Talking Heads head further down the experimentation with loop structures, layering vocals, centralising percussion, and keeping Byrne’s vocal to a punk style, fast spoken with plenty of vibrations felt. Though this track lives in the shadows of the following six and a half minutes of pure Talking Heads bliss - "The Great Curve". This is where Eno's production comes in to real effect. You can hear so many instruments coming together, layering over each other in various rhythms and time signatures to create a mix of dance, funk, and jazz - incredibly fruitful without coming across as an avant-garde mess.  

As with all classic albums, there’s one standout which truly captures the imagination of the performer, and the listener. Remain in Light's standout presents itself with "Once in a Lifetime" - an instantly recognisable track from the 80s. Using Eno's Oblique Strategies technique of lateral thinking, Talking Heads managed to create one of the most philosophical and free flowing new wave tracks, tying in to Remain in Light with Eno's methods of recording, and furthering the idea of polyrhythms to a deeper extent witch contributions unaware of the basis to "Once in a Lifetime". It was patched together like clockwork, allowing Byrne’s lyrics to read as text rather than as song. Byrne’s consistent questioning is marking the connection between the unfulfilled American Dream, and an inevitable mid-life crisis. His lyricism is noted for its existential themes, especially towards the end where he questions not only the character’s possessions, but his being as well. It culminates with powerful synthesizers, a bopping beat, and a finale rendition of The Velvet Underground's "What Goes On".   

The second half of Remain in Light differs to its flipside, there's almost a distinct feel change which Eno, Byrne and co want the listener to recognise. First there's "Houses in Motion", a funk rock ride through the inspiration of polyrhythms brought forward through Fela Kuti's style of structure and percussion. "Seen and Not Seen", an apt follow-up to its funk predecessor, with elements of ambient ranging from the dreary soundscapes to the fun sounding synthesizer riffs - capsuled by Byrne’s soft vocal touch, poetry to the ears: "He would see faces in movies, on TV, in magazines, and in books. He thought that some of these faces might be right for him," it's very sparse recording leading so importantly in to the final two tracks. "Seen and Not Seen" truly is one of the most imaginative tracks Talking Heads have ever constructed, but it goes beyond that. Byrne’s lyrics reading is almost directly taken from The Velvet Underground's "The Gift", but instead of a love lost story, Byrne’s is more archaic. The sense of magic and intrigue sounds this eerie track, as hypnotic as "Once in a Lifetime", and far more serial-killer-esque than "Psycho Killer" - a highlight not to be missed in transition between the 'hits' and the back album tracks. 

Remain in Light closes with two tracks of pure genius, the lyrically explicit "Listening Wind", with the story of Mojique, a described 'terrorist' feeling the might of the West; and the album closer "The Overload", inspired by Joy Division's sound based on press descriptions. The answer was catastrophically accurate, as "The Overload", and quite honestly "Listening Wind" sound like cuts from Joy Division's sophomore album Closer which was released just before Talking Heads began recording Remain in Light. The connection doesn’t extend beyond this written hidden influence, but Byrne’s eccentrics are relatable to Ian Curtis somewhat - interesting. "The Overload" is especially eerie; with the sense of an austere instrumental powerful enough with synthesizers and bass, but keeping to grips with reality with the reverberated percussion. It's unlike the rest of Remain in Light with the dark, almost gothic theme, a world apart from "Crosseyed and Painless" and "The Great Curve". Remain in Light's variety has always been a pull factor and one of the main reasons why it's Talking Head's magnum opus. Without the polyrhythms on "The Great Curve", the synth riff on "Once in a Lifetime", and the austerity of the closing two tracks, Remain in Light wouldn’t be featured here today. The 80s weren’t a fantastic period for music, but it still bears a huge influence on artists today. These polyrhythms are the best example of influencing Britain’s biggest export since The Beatles - Radiohead, and of course, Bret Easton Ellis' psycho killer novel wouldn't apply to the real world without "(Nothing But) Flowers", with its African influences and structure building stemming from this period with Eno, and the years before on Byrne / Eno's collaborative effort, and the previous Talking Head's album Fear of Music. Remain in Light is without a doubt, the essential classic album of the 80s, and one to turn to when in the Talking Heads mood. It has brilliant instrumentals ranging from funk to art-punk, and poetic lyricism explored by Byrne thoroughly. Remain in Light is truly an outstanding album, and it's accessible to all listeners no matter what their musical preference may be, a joy to behold.
~Eddie Gibson


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Discovery: Talking Heads - Remain in Light
Talking Heads - Remain in Light
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