Talking Heads Fear of Music: Album Review

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 On their third album, 1979’s Fear of Music, Talking Heads broadened the scopes of both their lyrical content and overall sound. With this album, they proved not only that they had substantial staying power, but also the capacity to evolve considerably. For the first time, the band prominently featured additional instruments in their songs to the basic guitars, drums and keyboard that dominated their previous work. Fear of Music set the tone for the many sonic and artistic transitions the band went through during the rest of their time together.

As well as fear of all kinds, the songs on Fear of Music discussed one of fear’s closest counterparts: paranoia. As the album’s title suggested, the fear described in these songs was such that it even extended to the fear of music itself, despite the fact that it WAS music.

During the album’s composition, frontman David Byrne pictured the characters in his songs as living in a dystopian world and wrote from that perspective. This veered from the detached, almost anthropological view towards human endeavors that Byrne had taken on the band’s first two albums, 1977’s Talking Heads: 77 and 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food. With titles like “Cities,” “Drugs,” “Paper” and “Air,” the songs on Fear of Music worked to explore and break down specific, basic concepts of modern human life.

The first track, “I Zimbra,” demonstrated right away the band’s departure from their previously sparse, angular style of rock into something more world-music inspired. “I Zimbra” was based on the Dadaist poem “Gadji beri bimba” by Hugo Ball. With its nonsensical lyrics and African-themed beat, this song set the tone for the musically diverse and sometimes irreverent album that followed.

Talking Heads Fear Of Music

Photo: By Jean-Luc (originally posted to Flickr as Talking Heads) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

However, the playfulness and irreverence of this first track was swiftly replaced with frustration on Fear of Music’s second song, “Mind,” which served as a reflection on how impossible it was to get through to people sometimes. In the song, no human constructs—religion, time, etc.—nor even Byrne himself succeeded in changing a person’s mind. At times, the desperate tone in Byrne’s voice made it seem like he was singing about the futility of trying to establish any type of contact or relationship with another person at all.

This album also contained one of Talking Heads’ most seminal songs, “Life During Wartime,” which was made so largely by its catchy, iconic lyrics. This track was also one of the record’s more straightforward rock offerings. Another track, “Memories Can’t Wait,” utilized sped-up vocals and science-fiction-y tones to result in an eerie atmosphere. The song “Air” sounded just like its title and inspiration, with a buoyant, almost happy tone that also veered towards the unsettling. In this song, Byrne described the dilemma of not even being able to trust the air you breathe not to kill you.

“Heaven” was the lone, bright, positive spot amidst the darkness and negativity of the rest of the album. The gorgeously understated arrangement of the song made the listener realize the truth of its mournfully beautiful central line: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”

During the track “Animals,” Byrne described the animal kingdom as laughing at and making fools of us humans. All throughout the album up to that point, he had stressed the ridiculousness of the modern human position, and in this song, he stated it flat-out. The next-to-last track, “Electric Guitar” was a strange, heavy track about the importance of the electric guitar, though it contained a sinister edge. This track looped back around to the central theme of the album of fear of music and the instruments used to make it. The album ended with a track co-written by producer Brian Eno entitled “Drugs,” which used jungle sounds and other such devices to increase the sense of the wilderness that the use of drugs can abandon a person to.

Fear of Music was the point when Talking Heads began to seriously deepen their approach and expand their influence. Their third album showed what a talented, well-rounded and important band of their time that they really were.

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