Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light”

Talking Heads Remain in Light album cover.

I’ve been listening to the Talking Heads’ fourth album “Remain in Light” from 1980. I first loved the video for “Once in Lifetime” as child seeing it on Mtv. My love and of the song and video have continued ever since. And also the amazing performance of the song in the concert film “Stop Making Sense.” Somehow I managed to never really hear the rest of this album. I looked forward to this week of getting to know the rest of the album. I heard most of these tracks for the first time, which was exciting.

Unfortunately, I lied when I said it was exciting. With the first listen, I kind of liked this album. After seven days, I didn’t care for it much at all. Overall, I was glad that the week was over. The Talking Heads and crew do some innovative things here, but I fail to find the results interesting enough; there’s a lot of repetition without much variation, making the 4½ – 6 minute songs feel very long.

Born Under Punches

“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” kicks off the album with two percussion hits followed by Byrne’s exclamation “hah!” Immediately, we’re brought into a very textural layering of rhythms. Like Paul Simon some years later, Brian Eno and the Talking Heads were drawing influence from African rhythms. In contrast to Simon, they seem to be playing with possibilities encountered in African music rather than copying what they heard.

This song is full of layers of hand percussion and drum kits, looped and manipulated. Synth bleeps and bloops provide unique rhythm elements rather than pads and melodies. The bass comes and goes ,bouncing to signal openings of bars with sharp plucks providing off-beat movement.. clean electric guitar blips and chops hyperactively, adding to the fractal-like texture of the music. What’s happening musically is very fascinating, even if it wears thin in the listening.

While I talk below about chord progressions, the Talking Heads don’t overtly play chords in most of these songs. The individual instruments focus more rhythm and melodic riffing; yet they work together to form chords over bars, often strengthened by the bass and pad synths.

Listening Wind

Towards the end of the album “Listening Wind” provides a bit of a break from the frantic skittering rhythms of the album. As far as the chord progression, the song follows a basic i-VII. This fragile progression feels less like a chord progression and more like it sinks down to the VII and returns to the minor tonic. With the slow pace and rhythmic delay, the sound is of a slow and determined approach. This movement and emotion suits the lyrics about an African terrorist responding to Western imperialism.

Mojique sees his village from a nearby hill
Mojique thinks of days before Americans came
He sees the foreigners in growing numbers
He sees the foreigners in fancy houses
He thinks of days that he can still remember…now.
Mojique holds a package in his quivering hands
Mojique sends the package to the American man
Softly he glides along the streets and alleys
Up comes the wind that makes them run for cover
He feels the time is surely now or never…more.

The overall sound and use of synths in this song reminds me a lot of David Bowie’s album “Outside” from fifteen years later. Of cours, i love those marimba sounds, which are undoubtedly synthesizer here. Coincidentally, Brian Eno worked on that album as well. I like the undulating delay with echos of the filtered squelches and plucks drifting into the dreamy distance. The song creates a cloudy haze, as the main character responds to the listening wind, from without and within.

Once in a Lifetime

I’m not surprised that they chose “Once in a Lifetime” to promote as the single. With this track, they created the most approachable and enjoyable song. They made use of much of the same experimental techniques and rhythms, but within a more traditional song structure. There distinctive verses and choruses, with a bridge.

The verses follow an unusual chord progression of V-iii-V-iii. The bass emphasizes the change from one chord to the next, with two quick beats in on the first chord and then one on the new chord. The chorus then repeats V-I-iii-IV. This chord progression tricks us, because it never truly resolves; yet, it provides an undeniable forward movement.

Many of the lyrics on this album seem impenetrable nonsense. However, I suspect they are much like the lyrics here. Given enough time, we can fill them with meaning. For me, this song speaks of how time can progress on us when we’re not paying attention. By playing the game idly with obedient sleepwalking, we will wake one day not recognizing the life we’ve made for ourselves.

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

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