Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Talking Heads

  • Talking Heads 77 [Sire, 1977] A-
  • More Songs About Buildings and Food [Sire, 1978] A
  • Fear of Music [Sire, 1979] A-
  • Remain in Light [Sire, 1980] A
  • The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads [Sire, 1982] A-
  • Speaking in Tongues [Sire, 1983] A-
  • Stop Making Sense [Sire, 1984] B+
  • Little Creatures [Sire, 1985] A
  • True Stories [Sire, 1986] B
  • Naked [Sire, 1988] B+
  • Stop Making Sense (Special New Edition) [Sire/Warner Bros., 1999] Dud
  • Once in a Lifetime [Sire/Warner Bros./Rhino, 2003] C

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Talking Heads 77 [Sire, 1977]
A debut LP will often seem overrefined to habitues of a band's scene, so it's not surprising that many CBGBites felt betrayed when bits of this came out sounding like Sparks or Yes. Personally, I was even more put off by lyrics that fleshed out the Heads' post-Jonathan Richman, so-hip-we're-straight image; when David Byrne says "don't worry about the government," the irony is that he's not being ironic. But the more I listen the more I believe the Heads set themselves the task of hurdling such limitations, and succeed. Like Sparks, these are spoiled kids, but without the callowness or adolescent misogyny; like Yes, they are wimps, but without vagueness or cheap romanticism. Every tinkling harmony is righted with a screech, every self-help homily contextualized dramatically, so that in the end the record proves not only that the detachment of craft can coexist with a frightening intensity of feeling--something most artists know--but that the most inarticulate rage can be rationalized. Which means they're punks after all. A-

More Songs About Buildings and Food [Sire, 1978]
Here the Heads become a quintet in an ideal producer-artist collaboration--Eno contributes/interferes just enough. Not only does his synthesized lyricism provide flow and continuity, it also makes the passive, unpretentious technological mysticism he shares with the band real in the aural world. In fact, there is so much beautiful music (and so much funky music) on this album that I'll take no more complaints about David Byrne's voice. Every one of these eleven songs is a positive pleasure, and on every one the tension between Byrne's compulsive flights and the sinuous rock bottom of the music is the focus. I have more doubts than ever about Byrne's post-hippie work-ethic positivism--on one new song, he uses the phrase "wasting precious time" and means it--but if it goes with music this eccentric and compelling I'm damn sure going to hear him out. A

Fear of Music [Sire, 1979]
David Byrne's celebration of paranoia is a little obsessive, but like they say, that doesn't mean somebody isn't trying to get him. I just wish material as relatively expansive as "Found a Job" or "The Big Country" were available to open up the context a little; that way, a plausible prophecy like "Life During Wartime" might come off as cautionary realism instead of ending up in the nutball corner with self-referential fantasies like "Paper" and "Memories Can't Wait." And although I'm impressed with the gritty weirdness of the music, it is narrow--a little sweetening might help. A-

Remain in Light [Sire, 1980]
In which David Byrne conquers his fear of music in a visionary Afrofunk synthesis--clear-eyed, detached, almost mystically optimistic. First side's a long dance-groove more sinuous than any known DOR that climaxes in the middle with the uncontorted "Crosseyed and Painless" but begins at the beginning: when Byrne shouts out that "the world moves on a woman's hips"--not exactly a new idea in rock and roll--it sounds as if he's just discovered the secret of life for himself, which he probably has. Second side celebrates a young terrorist and recalls John Cale in his spookiest pregeopolitical mode but also begins at the beginning: with "Once in a Lifetime," the greatest song Byrne will ever write. It's about the secret of life, which even a woman's hips can't encompass. A

The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads [Sire, 1982]
Live albums by essentially nonimprovisatory artists who do definitive work in the studio are always slightly extraneous, but the choice songs and prime performances compiled on this twofer (one disc 1977-79, the other 1980-81) may turn out to be definitive themselves. David Byrne seems more outgoing and somehow normal in this context, yet also more eccentric--his collection of animal cries is recommended to Van Morrison. Five years and not a misstep--think maybe they're gunning for world's greatest rock and roll band? A-

Speaking in Tongues [Sire, 1983]
With Eno departed, the polyrhythms no longer seem so portentous--this funk is quirkily comfortable, like the Byrne-produced B-52's or the three-piece of Byrne's earlier primitivist period. Unfortunately, the polyrhythms no longer seem so meaningful, either. Though God knows there's no rock and roll rule that says playfulness can't signify all by itself, the disjoint opacity of the lyrics fails to conceal Byrne's confusion about what it all means. Yet side two lights me up nevertheless, sandwiching the purest anticapitalist song he's ever written and the purest prolove song he's ever written around two pieces of typically ironic-optimistic futurism. A-

Stop Making Sense [Sire, 1984]
Always skeptical of live albums, I note that this is their second in a four-year period that has netted only one studio job while establishing them as a world-class live band. Number one was a useful overview; number two is a soundtrack, albeit for the finest concert film I've ever seen, that repeats three songs from the overview and four from the studio job. Buy the video. B+

Little Creatures [Sire, 1985]
As I assume you've figured out, this return to basics isn't exactly Talking Heads '77. What the relatively straight and spare approach signifies is that their expansive '80s humanism doesn't necessarily require pluralistic backup or polyrhythmic underpinnings. It affirms that compassionate grown-ups can rock and roll. The music is rich in hidden treasures the way their punk-era stuff never was, and though the lyrics aren't always crystalline, their mysteries seem more like poetry than obscurantism this time out. Anyway, most of the time their resolute happiness and honest anger are right there, and in "Stay Up Late" they come up with a baby song that surpasses "Willie and the Hand Jive" itself. A

True Stories [Sire, 1986]
These songs were conceived for a movie, rarely an efficient way to initiate an aural experience. Yet they're real songs, not detached avant-garde atmospherics, and honest though David Byrne's sympathy may (I said may) be, they leach their vitality from traditions that demand more heart than he ordinarily coughs up. Interesting they remain. But no way the rhetorical gris-gris of "Papa Legba" or the evangelical paranoia of "Puzzlin' Evidence" or (God knows) the escapist solace of "Dream Operator" is gonna fascinate like "Crosseyed and Painless" or "Slippery People"--for one thing, Byrne lets us know what the new songs mean, which ain't much. Do they rock, you want to know? Oh yes they do. B

Naked [Sire, 1988]
Where Paul Simon appropriated African musicians, David Byrne just hires them, for better and worse--this is T. Heads funk heavy on the horns, which aren't fussy or obtrusive because Byrne knew where to get fresh ones. What's African about it from an American perspective is that the words don't matter--it signifies sonically. The big exception is the glorious "(Nothing But) Flowers," a gibe at ecology fetishism that's very reassuring in this context. B+

Stop Making Sense (Special New Edition) [Sire/Warner Bros., 1999] Dud

Once in a Lifetime [Sire/Warner Bros./Rhino, 2003]
Most pretentious objet de rock ever. Unique 5-x-17-inch design, suitable for storage with spare lumber, assures that the appreciations by Rick Moody, Mary Gaitskill, Maggie Estep, Dick Hebdige, Kyoichi Tsuzuki, and last but not least David Fricke will come loose if you dare read them. Illustrations include lovely water-colory thing of young teenager with severed penis. Fourth disc a DVD. Third disc loaded with True Stories and Naked, which I once thought overrated. I was wrong. They sucked. C

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