On Second Thought
Talking Heads - Fear of Music






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

A good deal has been written about the dark elements latent in much pop, from latter-day readings of “He hit me / And it felt like a kiss” onward; some would argue that one particular element, one of paranoia, underlies some of its greatest moments. Singers and instrumentalists (perhaps the most formidable example, and the one most imitated since, is Charlie Parker’s my-life-depends-on-it style of playing) bristle with fear and ambivalence, which is often staggeringly effective in involving the listener, or, to put it another way, making them feel that something crucial is at stake. Pop’s history is rich in agitation. Its most obvious and uncomplicated example arrives in the sexually tense why-pick-on-me-girl narratives of garage rock – an often self-consciously primitive form of expression that’s fueled by sex and all its agonies – but it’s in its racially opposite counterpart, funk, that some of the more interesting, and subtle, forms of musical paranoia bubble to the surface.

It’s in the agitated rhythm sections of Booker T. and somewhat more obscure imitative instrumental combos, like the Nite-Liters, whose shaky, blistering “Afro Strut” seems to carry a threat of violence, as well as in Funkadelic’s raw, psychedelic-to-the-point-of-implosion tracks, like the creeping, tremolo-rich, organ-dominated B-side of “I Wanna Know If It’s Been Good To You, Baby.” Funky psychosis – if we leave interpretations of hip-hop’s lyrics and RZA-fied cinematic soundscapes for another time – reaches its apogee in Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, which has generally been referred to as a dark, coked-out death knell for Sixties idealism. It’s an album I expect David Byrne to have listened to and taken notes on more than a few times in his life.

The Talking Heads, on Fear of Music, borrow liberally from funk idioms, albeit in a way unlike that of its follow-up, Remain in Light (though the rap of “Crosseyed and Painless” distills the paranoia on its predecessor to a few neat measures). It mixes traditional funk beats and basslines with minor-key gloom – most effectively on the standout track “Cities,” which depicts an alienated nomad of a narrator trying to maintain the cocktail-party illusion that he wants to live – and more extreme devices of sonic disorientation, such as the taffy-pull rhythm and disembodied chirps of the unpredictable “Drugs,” which then culminates in a twisted, dirty guitar solo that seems ripped from some other song entirely. Producer Brian Eno, famous for meticulous if inexplicable process-based alteration of every instrument in the mixes of his albums, seems to use the Heads as laboratory specimens on this record, which often gives the impression that the band’s been chloroformed and subjected to ECT therapy between tracks. Byrne, of course, is the star of the show, with his quavering nervousness. He seems to supply the album with its main concept, that of a perpetual mental disintegration.

It has been suggested that placing the words “Fear of” in front of each song title illuminates its meaning; this makes a great deal of sense to the listener when considering “Air,” a querulous lament against atmosphere-borne toxins set to music that initially seems very Zappaesque, and the darkly hilarious, all-out diatribe “Animals,” which features Byrne unleashing a litany of grievances against, yes, animals, which he seems to view as hopeless smart-asses. While these songs (and “Electric Guitar,” where rock music is sent to a Kafkaesque tribunal to answer for its unexplained crimes against the state) give you a sense of discomfort akin to sitting next to a deranged bus passenger, “Heaven,” the true standout, manages to carve something far more moving out of all this peculiar anomie. Uncharacteristically melodic, even gentle, it features Byrne’s famously wry, bemused take on the afterlife as, literally, “a place where nothing ever happens.” If it seems less immediately off-putting than the other tracks, perhaps that’s the point; for a moment, it’s as if the band has transported us out of the cryptic tedium of all our day-to-day routines and into some elevated place. On their next release, they’d take us all along with them, into the light; here, they’re illuminating the messes of the modern world, making them seem awfully strange. If we’re afraid, it’s alright; so are they.


By: Chris Smith
Published on: 2003-09-01
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