MusicWeekend

A Talking Heads Album, Forty Years Later

More Songs About Buildings and Food, a concept album about late capitalism, speaks with disarming directness to the current political moment.

Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food is a concept album about late capitalism that speaks with disarming directness to the current political moment. Celebrating its 40th birthday this month, the album has always riveted, but if anything the political and social predicaments that inform these songs have only become more dysfunctional over time. The fetishization of work and the increasingly long work week, self-help individualism and the power of positive thinking, the inspirational entrepreneurial success story, the nightmarish system that underlies and exacerbates these horrors — More Songs About Buildings and Food predicted it all. Those who have spent time reading resumes and cover letters will recognize the language of professional aspiration in these songs, the polite catchphrases beloved by administrators for how they detach speaker from utterance, the brightly disingenuous tone of exaggerated sincerity that pervades advertisements, press releases, everything. In 1978, “The Good Thing” presumably scanned as satire. In 2018, the song could pass for a Silicon Valley business email.

Talking Heads belong to the alternative rock canon’s highest echelon, universally beloved as icons of quirk, and will remain so in perpetuity as new generations of aesthetes discover their back catalog and the joys of gawking over the Stop Making Sense video with a group of friends. Ukulele covers of “This Must Be the Place” abound on YouTube, as do Remain in Light T-shirts at music festivals; Heads posters to this day adorn the bedrooms of indie fans across the globe. By the time they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, they had made their mark: art-pop bands were free to play with funk and “world” genres from a punkoid base, nerdboys free to present themselves as such.

Their legacy has persisted, just as their overt presence in the rock world has shrunk. They’re so obviously omnipresent, their model so played out, it’s almost gauchely self-evident when bands namecheck them as an influence. So, the peculiarities of their discography still startle. Compared to other icons of quirk in the same league, like Bowie and Lou Reed, the harshness and tightness of early Talking Heads alarms. Compared to the few other big quasi-new-wave bands filling arenas in the ‘80s, like R.E.M. and U2, their refusal to appreciate things like beauty and emotions seems both convoluted and inhumane. In a sense they’re too weird to engage with directly, given the sincere literalism of the current critical moment. That’s one reason More Songs About Buildings and Food remains a terrifying listen.

Art school refugees attracted to aesthetic ideals of starkness and extremity, Talking Heads surfaced in the ‘70s New York punk scene, one of the early CBGB bands. From the start, in live performance and on record, they distinguished themselves musically from the punk template with a wired lankiness that suggested nervous, rather than cathartic, energy. Their 1977 debut, the eponymous Talking Heads: 77, is the dinkiest of the classic punk debuts, fusing punk’s economical spareness with strained mock cheer. The songs that resulted are animated less by a dialectic than the surprisingly rich common ground between theoretically distant sensibilities. The band sound rattles, deploying skewed guitar shrieks and melodious ditties in equal measure, anchored by the supple, reliable rhythm section of bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz’s. “Psycho Killer” and “No Compassion” typify their harsh side, as David Byrne and Jerry Harrison’s choked guitars unwind from their coils to slash at each other. The gloriously chirpy “Don’t Worry About the Government” is an advertising jingle by comparison, but it shares with “Psycho Killer” a detachment, an angularity. Always there’s the sense that the song is playing a joke on you.

Most crucially, the album establishes Byrne’s carefully constructed persona as lead singer. Imagine The Office’s Dwight Schrute as a Don DeLillo protagonist. As introduced to the world on Talking Heads: 77, David Byrne is not a punk, he’s a geek, and hardly a lovable one — the grownup version of the weird kid who sat in the back of the class and mumbled to himself, who stared at his feet and clenched his jaw, so lost in his own thoughts he never talked to anyone else. He’s white collar, having landed in a generic corporate management job through his obsessive work ethic and slavish deference to authority; there he sputters proclamations like “This report’s incomplete” and “I’m gonna give the problem to you.” He believes in science, business, and government, with absolute faith that the system will take care of people and put them in their place. He’s a proponent of enlightened self-interest and considers himself a gifted motivational speaker. He believes in action over talk, hard logic over feeling, decisiveness over introspection. “Decisiveness” is one of his favorite words. He’s always careful to use proper technical language. He writes songs about business with an insider’s ease and writes love songs like he’s trying to analyze a scientific phenomenon foreign to him. He has a purist’s disdain for human weakness and the squishier emotions, like lack of total self-control, or “compassion.” Often his disdain spills over into seething rage. He’s too repressed to do anything about it or even process the emotion, and it confuses him.

Men like this exist in droves — awkward, frustrated, but dangerous droves — and the Internet has increased their visibility. We’re acutely conscious of them whenever they type out paragraphs of technical minutia; whenever they correct women to make a show of correcting women; whenever they flaunt false notions of rationality and objectivity; whenever we encounter words like “mansplain,” “scientism,” and “incel.” (The Byrne of “I’m Not in Love” would sneer at “incels” for wanting to have sex in the first place.) Byrne invented the character as a nightmarish exaggeration, before the type was so broadly familiar. Dramatizing social ineptitude was his way of fusing punk with art school; it meant he could play around with tropes and themes. Through the eyes of the geek, he could drag cultural tendencies to their logical endpoints and distort the world into a dystopia he claimed to prefer over real life.

The perverse fantasies enacted by Byrne on early Talking Heads albums are a mutated form of satire — they don’t exactly uphold conventional values, but they’re so cheerful about pretending to that they don’t code as challenges either. The character isn’t himself the object of satire, nor are the opinions he espouses, nor the situations he finds himself in. But a rationalist’s voice is perfect for revealing subliminal feelings usually left unarticulated, because to him they’re not feelings, and he’ll openly admit to them — he’s rationalized them all. What horrifies about Talking Heads is how calmly and reasonably Byrne expresses the awful little unsaid thoughts that cross our minds regularly. All the tiny daily moments of loathing for people ahead of you in line, cutting you off on the highway, walking slower than you on the sidewalk, standing too close to you in the elevator. All the sudden impulses brought upon us by impatience and exasperation that we immediately ignore and discard for our own social survival and humanity’s greater good. All the logical contortions we go through to justify feeling as we do, forgotten once the feeling passes, all presented brightly, neatly, as if they’re totally normal, because they are.

For their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), they hired Brian Eno, well on his way to establishing himself as a notorious producer-in-demand. Eno, along with Frantz and Weymouth’s rhythm section, deserves some credit for the album’s increased volume and coherence, replacing the debut’s scrappy thinness with scrappy thickness. The opening chords of “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” an exuberantly silly rocket of a song, announce the specificity and eccentricity of their new sound: galloping drums, hyperactive picking, scratchy rhythm guitar, calmly echoey power chords overlaid atop the nervous base.

The album’s full, blocky sonic template imbues the band’s brittle intensity with Eno’s mystic, romantic delight in physical sound, constructing a spry, lithe, metallic music machine that clatters and jitters over a bedrock of sturdy, flowing rhythm. These are songs composed of textures derived from punk, blown up into something larger and deeper, something that gleams with the brilliance of new wave keyboards and bounces with the assurance of funk bass. “Artists Only,” whose shiny organ whoosh adorns a set of slinky action-movie basslines that eventually take over the song in a turbulent breakdown, typifies More Songs About Buildings and Food’s basic musical strategy: it’s simultaneously abrasive and immersive.

The lyrics encompass several flavors of jargon, combining business newspeak, self-help platitudes, academic blather, advertising slogans, therapeutic reassurances, mushy equivocations, and who knows what else into grotesque idiomatic hybrids taken to reflect the speech patterns of brave modern man in capitalist utopia. Contemporary equivalents would use words like “incentive,” “deliverables,” “operationalize,” “empower,” and “self-care.” The catchphrases Byrne utters on More Songs About Buildings and Food aren’t so technical, but they’re no less horrific. I’ve got money now. I’ve got to get to work now. I’m cleaning my brain. I don’t have to prove that I am creative. But never fear: with a little practice, you can walk, talk just like me.

The album’s first side contains six chirpy, crunchy punkoid miniatures. Some have discernible themes, like “The Girls Want to Be With the Girls,” in which the concept of feminism befuddles the benevolent but confused singer. Over arpeggiated guitar jangle and contentedly plinky piano, Byrne scratches his head, chews his pencil, and notes: “Girls are getting into abstract analysis/would like to make that intuitive leap/they’re making plans that have far-reaching effects/and the girls want to be with the girls/and the boys say, what do you mean?”

Others are language mashups for their own sake, like “The Good Thing,” a series of garbled slogans that purportedly outline Byrne’s work methodology. As the placid, syncopated guitar riff that anchors the song merges with spacey keyboard air, Byrne informs his management team, waiting attentively for each subsequent PowerPoint slide, that “A straight line exists between me and the good thing/I have found the line and its direction is known to me”; “As we economize, efficiency is multiplied”; and so on. After the second chorus, the song’s superficial calm turns sinister, and the guitars start to clatter, their sharp edges just barely contained by the whirlwind drums and piercing bassline. “I have adopted this and made it my own/cut back on weakness reinforce what is strong/watch me work!” screams Byrne. The song ends as he bellows “work,” repeatedly.

The first side ends with “Found a Job,” whose thumpy bass, percussive rhythm guitar, and exuberant chord progression would sound like funk if the guitars weren’t so harsh, so cutting, so mechanical. Distorting familiar tropes from beginning to end, “Found a Job” is an entrepreneurial success story presented as a self-help parable. To summarize, an ordinary American couple named Bob and Judy are dissatisfied with the meagre offerings on TV, so they decide to go into business as television producers so they can “make up their own shows.” Their creative product proves a phenomenal success, so they keep at it and gradually build careers for themselves. As an added bonus, the psychological benefits of working together on a project they love resolves all the latent problems in their previously ailing relationship. Loving each other and loving their work, they live happily ever after. Finally, Byrne breaks the fourth wall to present the bigger picture: “So think about this little scene/apply it to your life/if your work isn’t what you love, then something isn’t right.”

The conflation of work and love; the particular TV theme, as if television were the center of aesthetic and moral life; the portrayal of hard work as a productive force that will solve everything in your life — what an image of suburban capitalism and the Protestant work ethic. After the third chorus, the band plays an extended outro: the guitar shifts into a faster, scratchier progression, and the keyboard plays a circular hook whose artificial cheer seems to wag its finger at you, reminding you to heed the song’s advice.

The cognitive dissonance of a rock band, however strange they sound, exhorting you to love your work and follow the rules — and not because they’re offering the usual anticonformist social critique, but because they really want you to love your work and follow the rules — disrupts one’s expected sense of who these musicians are and how they want to be perceived. This ridiculous contradiction, the disjunction between content and presentation, animates More Songs About Buildings and Food. As central as they are, Byrne’s fervent proclamations are only ever half the story, because he sings over music whose energy and beauty is unaccounted for in his worldview. The band’s wiry sharpness and skittish enthusiasm musically embody the paranoid anxiety conveyed by Byrne’s persona, certainly, and when he opens his mouth, agitated noises come out that perfectly complement the harsh whoosh all around. It’s the act of making music itself he finds incomprehensible.

Byrne plays a character who just wants to go about his business unbothered, waking up early every morning to catch trains that always run on time, working as hard as he can with his nose to the grindstone. Regardless of whether he needs to yelp and wail and let off steam, which he does, he certainly doesn’t want to — all he wants is to stay repressed and unnoticed forever. Somehow he’s wound up here in front of a microphone, and he can’t leave. Even worse, the band behind him is playing delightfully twitchy riffs and rhythms, and it’s making him feel things he’s never felt before, sensations in his body and longings in his heart he can’t control and doesn’t know what to do with. To listen to Talking Heads is to witness a performer’s indecisive dance between pleasure and revulsion. When he screams, it offers him release, but he’s also screaming because the very notion of release terrifies him.

Since the album’s first side establishes Byrne as a shrill workaholic, the five songs on the second side are doubly startling — especially the sex sequence, which may hardly be a sex sequence at all. Between the jaunty tantrum called “Artists Only” (“You can’t see it til it’s finished!”) and the closing “The Big Country” lie three songs that crystallize the album’s skewed balance between repression and desire. Few musical sequences display the many sides of pleasure so totally as the progression from “I’m Not in Love” to “Stay Hungry” to “Take Me to the River.”

Sturdy, spiky guitar whomp and thundering drums march through “I’m Not in Love,” whose roaring chords envelop the beat so totally they acquire a percussive solidity of their own. During the chorus, the whole band drops out except for two lone power chords, slamming down repeatedly to fill the silence. Byrne shrieks at random intervals during the verses, hissing and inhaling erratically, while throughout the chorus he murmurs more softly and weaves his way around the harsher guitar chords. The song growls and crashes, assuming a massive scale that looms threateningly over the singer. It’s a scary song for a scary world, for the geek, deeply flustered, has found himself caught in what appears to be a romantic situation. What if this woman tries to touch him — what if she tries to kiss him? The geek frowns. He shudders. He regains his composure. He tells her that he can’t, because he’s not in love. He asks what it takes to fall in love, and wonders whether people really fall in love. He wonders if there’s a time for this; it’s irresponsible. She presses him — what are you saying? He sighs; this poor woman doesn’t understand. He decides to educate her. So he explains how natural feelings just get in the way, and why we don’t really need love. He believes, you see, that one day we’ll live in a world without love. Please respect his opinions — they’ll be respected someday.

A critic trying to be clever might claim that “I’m Not in Love” is the most brilliantly indirect of love songs, that Byrne is in denial because he’s terrified of how strong his feelings are. I see no reason not to take the song at face value. “I’m Not in Love” quavers with the same distilled loathing the geek has always felt in his bones, combined with a juvenile determination to win the argument by going to logical extremes. She’s backed him into a corner, so he’ll renounce the whole principle on which her argument stands. How dare you think of me in that way? I don’t even believe in love. After the third chorus, the guitars go crazy for two minutes, jerking and scraping away at the drums, at the popping bassline, at their own textural surface, but as the song grinds to a halt there’s still a mountain of anger left over, brooding, trembling, glaring you down.

“Stay Hungry” is the polar opposite — a blissfully snappy mock-disco exercise, with sparkly keyboards painted over the chugging guitars. “I think we can signify our love now,” exclaims Byrne at the beginning, as the guitars drone and tumble and the beat skips with gleeful insouciance. A lustrous synthesizer plays a cheerfully astonished chord progression during the first verse, while Byrne calls out various bodily instructions, almost like a physical trainer doing jumping jacks: “Stay hungry! Move a muscle! Make a motion!” Then, for about a minute, the band settles into a scratchy groove; Harrison’s glassy organ fills and Weymouth’s obtrusive bassline repeats, over and over, while the rhythm guitar clacks and chatters, stuttering in a percussive pattern that seems to change gradually each time. Then, the same synthesizer as before plays a slower and more plaintive melody; derived from disco, its lyrical ache is particularly blatant when juxtaposed against the band’s fidgety harshness. Byrne begins to croon a tender admission of love, and the track fades out. Voila — his erotic breakthrough! It clicks in under three minutes.

Then, their famous cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” makes their debt to R&B explicit, and finally pushes the Byrne character over the emotional and sensory edge. Green’s original is streamlined, confident, beautiful in how delicately his falsetto merges with the effortless glide of the strings and the propulsive Hi Rhythm beat. Talking Heads turn the song inside out, revealing the seams: Frantz’s drumming is slower, more lumbering, yet somehow larger in the aural space; Weymouth’s bass is slinky and flat simultaneously; only the guitar hook in the chorus contains echoes of the original song’s central chord progression, turned cruder and more industrial. “Whooshing me down,” cries Byrne, and the music complies — the guitar sound really does whoosh, inhaling giant gulps of virtual air, like a mechanical sonic vacuum that only functions in spurts.

As performed by Al Green, “Take Me to the River” conflates the two great obsessions of the soul singer — “Take me to the river/drop me in the water” portrays a baptism scene as an act of erotic deliverance. For Talking Heads, it’s a moment of catharsis so massive even the singer can hardly resist its pull. After the last chorus, Byrne’s moans and yells become joyfully inarticulate — so this is what pleasure feels like! The vacuum/guitar goes haywire, as the drums have torn a gash in its surface, and it breaks free, an aural tube gasping and shuddering and flailing side to side. Eventually it drowns out Byrne’s own vocal racket; toward the end, at the song’s climax — finally! — it sucks him up into the ether.

The album’s second side thus portrays a vivid emotional arc: pleasure taking over, repression collapsing into desire, the singer loosening up and allowing himself to feel things. This narrative is hardly exceptional in itself — critics have praised Talking Heads’s later work, like the pleasant but bland Little Creatures (1985) and their totemic ballad “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” on similar grounds, as if alienated geeks were somehow obliged to grow up, become normal, and learn to love.

They aren’t, they frequently don’t, and anyway, the sequence from “I’m Not in Love” to “Stay Hungry” to “Take Me to the River” is sublimely weird precisely because these songs occupy space on an album dedicated to celebrating work, discipline, and repression. Like the disco keyboards juxtaposed against the scratchy punk guitars in “Stay Hungry,” the Byrne character’s sudden rush of desire is most striking when contextualized by songs on which he makes a show of buttoning his top button. That the character has been thoroughly dislikable up to this point hardly saps his love songs of relish; instead, it renders them painfully felt — not humanizing, for he’s always been human despite himself, but unexpected and almost surreal. These songs suggest that living in the orderly business world portrayed on the rest of the album comes at a price, and they explain why Byrne sounds so tense, so impassioned even when reciting slogans and numbers. They make clear what’s at stake.

The album’s final song marks a return to order. Like the rest of the second side, “The Big Country” contextualizes the album’s white-collar nightmare — not emotional but geographical context, and the context of class strata. Here, the geek has rebuttoned his top button, and put on a tie and jacket; he’s sitting on a plane, with his briefcase in the overhead, presumably going to some conference or other, having left his home city of New York or somewhere generic. He has a window seat, and he’s looking out at the landscape, feeling bemused at what he sees. Farmlands! Undeveloped areas! A parkway, and a baseball diamond! He furrows his brow, wondering why anyone would ever choose to live there.

He knows not everybody can live in the big city like him, as he’s “learned how these things work together.” He even supposes some of them might enjoy their lives; “I guess those people have fun with their neighbors and friends,” he admits. Enthusiastic slide guitar and rhythmically strummed acoustic underline his sudden fascination, gleefully playing a melody that’s both grand and dinky. Nonetheless: “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to!”

These days, the Byrne character wouldn’t giggle at “those people down there” from the airplane window — he’d interview three of them about why they voted for Trump before returning to his office at a major newspaper to write a condescending thinkpiece about why “coastal elites” are “out of touch” with the “real America.” That’s one reason why, played today, More Songs About Buildings and Food cuts deep. These songs have come true in ways the band couldn’t have foreseen or wanted, while remaining indisputably false in other ways, enough to render it a startling listen indeed. The album’s odes to late capitalism shock because late capitalism is upon us now more than ever; it’s the rare social satire whose exaggerated image of the world is so absurd and indirect it remains so. More Songs About Buildings and Food simultaneously plumbs a political realm and the mysteries of the human heart, connecting them through a structure of feeling that isn’t often articulated. It resonates because it’s so plainly skewed and so plainly recognizable. We’re walking and talking just like him.

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