album notes

Talking Heads: Fear of Music
August 29, 2007, 7:47 pm
Filed under: Talking Heads


Fear of Music
Talking Heads
Released 1979

I Zimbra: 7.3
Mind: 7.6
Paper: 6.2
Cities: 8.6
Life During Wartime: 8.9
Memories Can Wait: 6.7
Air: 7.3
Heaven: 8.2
Animals: 6.3
Electric Guitar: 5.7
Drugs: 7.0
Overall Rating: 7.25

Minimalistic. Damning. Futuristic. Cynical. Depressing. These are the words you usually don’t want to see when reading an album review, but oh, how incredibly wrong one would be. Talking Heads’ 1979 release Fear of Music is all these dark words and then some. It’s the best hatred you’ll ever get on record.

Of course, one wonders how David Byrne felt when writing these songs. Some sound completely ridiculous under his throaty and yelping vocals, so you get the feeling it’s mainly satire. Then again, how is one to know Byrne and the band didn’t decide to release an album full of songs about the state of the ever-worsening world of the late-1970s (think of every song as “Fear of …”)? A quandry, for sure, and one wonderfully captured on this piece of wax.

The most explicit example is the single “Life During Wartime,” filled with the kind of lyrics Bob Dylan would absolutely love: “I got some groceries/some peanut butter/to last a couple of days/but I ain’t got no speakers/ain’t got no headphones/ain’t got no records to play.” Sounds like a 15-year-old’s lament, but in context of the song, it’s time running out, time on the run, death approaching death. Good times. By the way, the song kicks, jamming along with some fine brass and rolling drum beats.

The other single is “Cities,” a paranoid (or not?) anthem about if a guy like David Byrne should live in a city like London, or Birmingham, or Memphis. With each verse, he cancels the prompted city out and gets more isolated and paranoid (“Good points! Bad points…”). The fact it sounds like the world’s greatest pinball game only makes it better. Dig those freakin’ guitar lines!

Brian Eno produced Fear of Music, which isn’t hard to believe. There’s space, blips everywhere, metallic flourishes. “Animals” (probably the most ridiculous of Byrne’s rants) moves back and forth while Byrne basically screams about the animals “laughing at us!” “Air” is incredibly spacy (which makes sense, since it’s about air), kind of a basic pop/rock song made good by Tina Weymouth’s almost sighing chorus line (“aaaaaaaaaaiiiiir”). And how about that Weymouth? Her fuzzy lines in “Electric Guitar” makes it listenable.

But it’s the little things in Fear of Music: That vicious open of “Mind,” the closing thrash of “Paper,” the steady groove of “Memories Can’t Wait,” the anomaly of the album. Smack in the middle of the album, it’s the hardest rocker and easily the most depressing song. While the other 10 tracks are paranoid rants, “Memories” is a midnight crawl through the underbelly of Byrne’s mind. (“There’s a party in my mind/and I hope it never stops” kind of tips you off.)

The opener and closer are both interesting opposites. “I Zimbra” single-handedly introduces worldbeat to the West; it’s a funky jam with harmony (harmony!). You can’t even tell Byrne is the vocalist! Without it, the album may be too much to handle. Once you reach “Drugs,” the big finale with a slow, droning rhythm stirred by Eno’s large hands, you may be about ready to murder someone. It’s that good.

I didn’t even mention “Heaven.” No need to. It’s gorgeous. That’s all you need to know, and probably the key to deciphering the album’s motive.

Folks, Fear of Music is a basic pop/rock album. Fun opener, singles at 4 and 5, a break in the middle, epic closer. It’s just drenched in paranoia, or humor, or paranoia, or humor. That’s what makes it so damn enjoyable.

And a note on the cover: One of the greatest ever. When I listen to this album, I immediately envision that metal, black grated basement door thing (I really don’t know what they’re called). It fits perfectly.