In a recent conversation with a close friend, we talked over the big mistakes we made in life. As active as you are during the lead up to the major fuck ups you make, there’s a weird state you enter as you approach the moment where you decide whether or not you are going to follow through. It’s that wonder of how the hell you got to where you are. Like, you remember the conversations you had, the people you followed, and the decisions you agreed to, but it’s also like you were teleported into this definitive moment of your consciousness. How did I get here?
It’s when you start to have autopilot moments in your life that you really appreciate the fact that a band put this sense of existence (or existential crisis) into words and music. “And you may find yourself in a beautiful house / With a beautiful wife,” David Byrne sings theatrically, like he’s waking up from his own dream state. While “Once In A Lifetime” branches out to comment on consumerism and society at large, its connection with every ordinary person is down to that familiar feeling of just letting life happen to you instead of actively living it. Day in, day out, until you find yourself with something new. Letting the days go by.
There’s a reason why songs with such strong, relatable messages like this are still burbling away in the minds of folks 40 years after their initial release. In “Once In A Lifetime”‘s case, it’s Byrne’s urgent delivery being backed up by rhythms simmering away, above and between each other. Producer Brian Eno “encouraged the band members to interpret the beat in different ways, thereby exaggerating different rhythmic elements” and the result is vibrant music that, when you remember it, feels like it has been quietly playing on loop in your head all your life. This is the soundtrack to the crisis one gets from living in society. Am I right? Or am I wrong?
As if you needed any further proof as to just how out there Talking Heads had taken popular music in the early 80s, “Houses in Motion” was actually released as the project’s unconventional second single.
Continuing with his fascination for buildings, Byrne begins “Houses in Motion” with his trademark mumble-singing, a dejected ghost singing “For a long time I felt without style or grace / Wearing shoes with no socks in cold weather.” The chorus lurches into his equally-trademarked shout-speaking, the Eno input (and influence) particularly palpable in the hook that forms that majority of the track.
The music itself slows things down a bit in comparison to the album’s more frantic moments, with Eno favorite’s Jon Hassell adding an essential additional layer with his performance on brass. Add to to that one of the funkiest bass lines in the Head’s arsenal (which, truly, is saying something) and you’ve got a sleeper jam from one of the best (and let’s face it, coolest) albums to ever shake up the popular consciousness.
Certain behaviors that most people take for granted make no sense to David Byrne’s iconoclastic eye. In “Seen or Not Seen,” we find him searching for some underlying logic to the snap judgments we make about other people, concluding that perhaps our physical appearance, and therefore the impression others have of us, is subtly altered by whom we choose to idolize.
Strong evidence in favor of Byrne’s hypothesis has emerged in the age of social media, where broad-strokes assumptions about fandoms prevail. Few would deny that there are definite personality types associated with being a fan of, say, Joe Rogan or Harry Potter, and the association is not always positive. “Some people may have made mistakes,” Byrne continues, “they may have picked an appearance based on a childish whim or momentary impulse.” The sentiment echoes one widely felt during our current cultural reckoning, when we find it hard to let go of our chosen idols simply because we’ve already incorporated so much of them into our identity. And, like in “Seen and Not Seen”, it is open to interpretation whether it’s too late for us to remake ourselves in a better image. That decision is up to us alone.
Is it really any surprise that the one track on Remain in Light that fully abandons the American continent and suburban setting is also its thematically most daring? On “Listening Wind”, David Byrne creates the eerie portrait of anti-imperialist bombers as almost shamanic entities. On a record mostly concerned with the everyday dance movements of urban American office hustlers, the yearning quasi-Krautrock ballad remains singular, linking spiritual elation to violent anti-imperialist terrorism.
Taking the perspective of a fictional character named Mojique, who doubles as a cold blooded terrorist and courageous freedom fighter, Byrne contrasts images of imperial wealth and decadence (the colonial invaders in fancy houses) with those of extreme poverty (the home village of the protagonist, the marketplace and free trade zone). Politics seem removed from his motif, but there’s a building sense of dread as Mojique feels gradually more empowered. Still, Byrne clarifies his own empathy by humanizing the rebel: his hands quiver as he delivers a bomb and a mysterious, ancient wind lifts up his very being.
Often characterized as Arabic-sounding, the song’s synthesizer-and-guitar-driven dub soundscape feels sweeping, yet also oddly enclosed – more like a dense jungle with tropical birds calling out than the narrow corridors of northern African streets. Still, it accurately communicates a feeling of levitated movement, inducing a sense of weightlessness, obscuring the dark meaning behind the song (hinted at by short, electronic beeps during the refrain). “Listening Wind” is an eerie reminder of the other side. It’s the moment when you exit the penthouse party and check your phone, suddenly dragged into the reality of guerrilla violence having evaded your safe space, by the very people for who luxury and safety are non-existent.
“The Overload” takes nearly everything that makes the previous tracks confounding and removes them. In Byrne’s own words in the song, there’s “a gentle collapsing, a removal of the insides.” An air of desolation and apparent sadness remains. I wouldn’t be surprised if even the biggest fans of The Heads have been skipping it all these years – not because it’s bad, but because it’s such a sobering experience. I’d always imagined this song as a sibling to Joy Division’s “Decades” (a song which I did legitimately avoid for many years because it made me too sad). But, apart from being two bands operating at the peak of their powers in 1980, there aren’t many more similarities. Apparently Talking Heads hadn’t even heard Joy Division at the time – although “The Overload” was their attempt to sound like the Brits based on what they’d been told about them.
Upon revisiting, there’s something refreshing about “The Overload”, almost like it acts like a sad song but is actually the ideal breather from the bombast, syncopation, and messiness of most of Remain in Light. Don’t let Byrne’s deadpan delivery fool you, there’s a well-earned peace happening here.
It’s nice to hear the band not have to cram a dozen paranoid voices into the song. After all, the polyrhythms and fun can’t last forever. The drumset that echoes from miles away, the skittering, yet minimalist bassline from Tina Weymouth, and the shades of Eno ambience all join to create a beautiful void. But, there’s more catharsis than the emptiness would have you believe. If you’ve only ever experienced this song as a sad bookend, try to reimagine it as it’s own version of confounding; and perhaps as the most contented and necessary end to Remain in Light.