Talking Heads - Lifetime Piling Up
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
David Byrne has been making us nervous for years. Thanks to a merger of economic, glass shard-smart rock and metropolitan soul, Talking Heads were the quintessential American post-punk band. Now, American bands have always been that way with their appropriations, perhaps emboldened by at least residing on the same continent as George Clinton. Minus the weighty invective of British post-punk, the US groups sought a similar release in aesthetics and guttural rhythm (Suicide, Devo, Swans), the embrace of an avant-gardism left behind in the ‘60s wake (Sonic Youth, Television), and the pure visceral thrill of one feverish rhythm or another (Konk, ESG, James Chance). Talking Heads seemed to tread these sundry paths without becoming slaves to any particular one, juggling accessibility and obscurity alongside a devout love for African and African-American forms. Memorably, Heads spin-off Tom Tom Club remain one of the few white groups to pen a love letter to black music steamy enough to receive an answer.
Ideologically speaking, Talking Heads maneuvered out of the stasis quo by cracking through the brittle shell of postmodernism and snatching the quivering pearl of emotion within, recognizing that if consumerism and materialism were faulty gods, they were still ones which held an undeniable allure. The humanity implicit in their charm was such that Byrne & Co. felt the need to assess them by means stronger than outright denial, tempered by critique. Not to mention tension. Always lots and lots of post-psychoanalytical tension. Penetrating past the art-student Marxism of Gang of Four, the industrial melancholy of Joy Division, and the scabrous scorched-earth of the Fall, the Heads presented a view of modern life as pallid and farcical, but also charged with a fragrant eroticism and a subtle dynamic of longing. At the same time, they were quite capable of evoking heady wads of primitive terror, surpassing mere polemic to unearth the Jungian weight beneath the easy fetishes of contemporary American socioeconomics.
"Lifetime Piling Up" is but one of many Byrne-penned twitches capturing the mindset of modern man emasculated by so very much... stuff. But unlike most of his odes to modernist tension and CNS breakdown, this is one without either a violent conclusion ("Burning Down the House," "Psycho Killer") or no conclusion at all (the majority of their catalog). Upon a bedrock of grooving uplift and evocative, minimal chorded accents, Byrne indulges in a set of lyrics peppered with blunt declarations of fragility ("Stay for a while / Maybe we'll never meet again," "I can see the days turn into nights," "I was only having fun") and commonplace existential paranoia ("Why's everybody making eyes at me," "Like an automobile / With no one at the wheel"). A guarded optimism shepherds the dialogue into the hazy realm of qualified positivity ("I can see it crashing into yours / It was not an accident at all," "And if they sober up / They'll have us home by morning"), the rhetoric closing (as does the song) with the euphoric rejoinder, "Turning the music up / Hey / I got a winning number," suggesting nothing quite so much as an escape from all this piling-up of daily woes, albeit one couched (ironically, one assumes) in the terms of material victory.
Fittingly, it was never released on an album. Talking Heads full-lengths were inevitably burdened by heady agendas. On 77, they shielded their longing with mechanical mannequin embraces far too reflective of genuine fear for the likes of the excessively witty Devo. By More Songs About Buildings and Food they'd roped in Eno to add texture, but still remained puzzled by the tender embrace. Fear of Music reminded us that every aspect of our stifling environment justified trepidation, and Remain in Light imaginatively dissolved organic African-derived rhythms into a miasma of Cold War constraint. By Eno's departure, the Heads began to earn their plural sobriquet, Frantz and Weymouth pulling away from disillusionment to realize a more accessible strain of white soul music, just as Byrne began to clumsily grope his own, more literary route of departure.
Sadly, it never saw life as a true single, although a UK 7" was released as a tie-in with double-CD best-of Sand in the Vaseline. Languishing amongst the other outtakes on that retrospective, it's really only when heard on its own merits that it startles with such an unexpected ration of feeling. More rooted in the layered, additive process of dance music than the staggered, funkademic meanderings and textural soup of the Eno era, "Lifetime Piling Up" captures tension via collage—an organ vamp here, a Duane Eddy twang there, some proto-House piano declensions, a meaty little nugget of churning guitar. Byrne's absurd stabs at baseness ("I could never keep my trousers up"), which might provoke disgust or laughter coming from a source more reliably human, register instead as deeply profound in this context. Thankfully, there is such a substantial shelling-out of warmth by the musical component of "Lifetime" that it renders Byrne's vulgarity ("sexy machine," indeed) nobly human and his more rarefied longings ("I got a funny feeling," any word repeated three times vis-a-vis "cry," "higher," "scream") damn near sublime.
Therein lies the reason "Lifetime Piling Up" is such a curious discrepancy in the Heads catalog. Once one's trousers have been lowered so revealingly, the only remaining options are a gradual withdrawal from view or the continual suffering of repeat inspections. In retrospect, the paths paved by both Byrne (New Wave-inflected adult contemporary nonchalance) and the Weymouth / Frantz axis (increasingly-anemic party jammage) seem obvious enough responses to the treacherous path hewn by songs like "Lifetime Piling Up." Honestly, the alchemical mixture of Talking Heads at their best was an extremely unstable blend that anyone might find difficult to contain. It would seem to be most especially trying for the architects who built that "highway to the stars" in the first place.