Deep Album Cuts Vol. 111: Talking Heads

Talking Heads have been one of my favorite bands since I was a teenager, but they've been on my mind more than usual lately. David Byrne released his okayish latest solo album American Utopia in March, and earlier this month Afropop singer Angelique Kidjo released a song-for-song cover of the Talking Heads album Remain In Light. Plus I've read a couple books in the last year that are primarily or partially about the band's '70s work: Jonathan Lethem's 33 1/3 book about Fear Of Music, which I have mixed feelings about, and Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever, an excellent Will Hermes book which takes its title, sort of, from an early Talking Heads song.

Talking Heads deep album cuts (Spotify playlist):
1. No Compassion
2. Who Is It?
3. I'm Not In Love
4. Thank You For Sending Me An Angel
5. Stay Hungry
6. Paper
7. Memories Can't Wait
8. Heaven
9. Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
10. Seen And Not Seen
11. The Great Curve
12. Love  → Building On Fire (live)
13. Making Flippy Floppy
14. Swamp
15. What A Day That Was (live)
16. Perfect World
17. Creatures Of Love
18. Radio Head
19. Mommy Daddy You And I

Tracks 1 and 2 from Talking Heads '77 (1977)
Tracks 3, 4 and 5 from More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978)
Tracks 6, 7 and 8 from Fear Of Music (1979)
Tracks 9, 10 and 11 from Remain In Light (1980)
Track 12 from The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads (1982)
Track 13 and 14 from Speaking In Tongues (1983)
Track 15 from Stop Making Sense (1984)
Track 16 and 17 from Little Creatures (1985)
Track 18 from True Stories (1986)
Track 19 from Naked (1988)

I grew up in a world where Talking Heads were kind of a ubiquitous staple of the burgeoning alt-rock pop culture, like U2 or R.E.M. except they hadn't stayed together to be present as an elder statesman band of the scene. And at a certain point it kind of felt like their influence was so pervasive as to be almost stifling; David Byrne's odd vocal tics and blank, affected style of writing about Americana and random nouns, the band's playfully stiff takes on funk and R&B and Afrobeat and avoidance of arena rock cliche -- so many dozens of bands took inspiration from Talking Heads, but if you followed their example too closely you could end up with a new set of cliches.

The 1999 DVD release of Stop Making Sense was a big moment of me really embracing the band and delving into their catalog, although it was bittersweet to realize that one of my favorite songs from the film, "What A Day That Was," was actually a Byrne solo track that wasn't nearly as good in its original studio incarnation. Remain In Light, being the band's most revered classic, was the first album I bought, but I had trouble really getting into it, and found it disappointing that none of the other songs had the pop sparkle of "Once In A Lifetime," and that side 2 felt like a long slow drift away from the high energy of side 1.

Even now, as I hold Remain In Light in fairly high regard, I think it's kind of a bad gateway album for getting into the band, and prefer the two Brian Eno-produced albums that preceded it. More Songs About Buildings And Food is my go-to favorite, and I could've picked 3 other songs from the album that I love just as much as the ones I used here. And Fear Of Music is such a great album to come out of writer's block, with Byrne resorting to zeroing into simple one-word concepts like "Paper" and "Air" to come up with lyrics. That running theme of the album, of course, makes the songs that don't follow the formula stand out more, and "Memories Can't Wait" is an amazing track that always leaps out at me. At one point I think it was the Talking Heads song I thought I'd cover if I was ever going to, before I realized that it was covered memorably on Living Colour's multiplatinum 1988 debut Vivid.

One thing that I was surprised to learn fairly recently is that Talking Heads ceased touring completely after early February 1984, several months before the release of Stop Making Sense, 4 years before their final album, and 7 years before their breakup became official. That places Talking Heads in a category I'm fascinated with: bands that became studio-only acts for a number of their active years and released some of their best-selling albums without touring in support of them, a small club that also includes The Beatles, Steely Dan, and R.E.M.

It's strange to think that Little Creatures is the band's best-selling album and topped critics' lists, because while its singles still get classic rock spins, it's really receded from the critical conversation about the band's best albums. The two less popular records that followed it are even more relatively forgotten, although I do like the polished Top 40-friendly incarnation of Talking Heads in the second half of their career. It's funny to think that Radiohead, a band that inherited the Talking Heads mantle of a hugely popular, acclaimed group by making dark, omnivorous music that recalls Remain In Light more than any other TH record, took their name from a True Stories track where Byrne sings "radio head, the sound of a brave new world" over a sunny melody from a Tejano accordionist. And "Mommy Daddy You And I" is notable to me as a rare Byrne lyric where he mentions Baltimore, where he lived for about a decade of his youth before fatefully relocating to Rhode Island and then New York City.
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