Personally, I don’t think any album made by a respectable artist such as the Talking Heads that is their highest charting and bestselling (and also contains their highest charting single; blasphemous, I know, since “Psycho Killer” absolutely slays “Burning Down the House”) can be classified as underrated. Hell, considering how every critic I’ve ever cared about has given this a positive score, I can only come to the conclusion that this overrated, if either of those rather silly concepts were to be chosen. If you want underrated, go straight to Little Creatures, which might not be nearly as consistent, but has higher highs (“The Lady Don’t Mind” is worth more than any of these songs).
The context: a band who has been delivering one of the best albums per year for four years in a row finally decided to go AWOL. It’s understandable and well-deserved, of course; Remain in Light had left the band emotionally exhausted such that in the year after, the heads of the band (see what I did there) took on side projects. Brian Eno and David Byrne made My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and I’m sure something happened in the sessions making that one because Brian Eno opted not to return to work with the Talking Heads on Speaking in Tongues. I’m not quite sure what Brian Eno was busy with — he hasn’t decided to use his talents to help U2 just yet — so I’ll have to assume David Byrne did something to piss him off. Maybe he hit on him. Meanwhile, apparently the Tom Tom Club (Talking Heads sans David Byrne)’s big hit “Genius of Love” could be taken as a metaphor for the way David Byrne was treating his bandmembers (Q: “Whatchu gonna do when you get out of jail?” A: “I’m gonna have some fun!”).
The problem with Speaking in Tongues is that apparently, Remain in Light had left the band creatively exhaustedas well. I’ll defer to George Starostin’s judgment (one of the few critics who are rightfully critical about the album. The ending has been italicized by yours truly for your reading pleasure), “What would the Heads be a-doin’ three years later, coming off two of the greatest New Wave albums ever recorded? Well… the Heads intentionally went down. Not only did they never ever record anything better (or as good as) their 1979-80 albums, they – so it seems – never had the intention of recording anything better. Speaking In Tongues is clearly regressive, and even self-consciously so, the main clue being the lack of Eno as producer. Whether Byrne and Co. parted ways with Eno on their own, or he refused to work with them any more (sic), is unclear; the simple truth is, there’s no Eno here, and thus, the album comes off as almost totally lacking the atmosphere of its predecessors. The darkness, the mental anguish, the deadly grip on the listener, the paranoia and the thorough otherworldness are gone, once and for all.”
Now, I don’t need another Remain in Light (which doesn’t even come close to my favorite two Talking Heads albums; and if we count live albums, would be even further down the list). I could do with another Fear of Music, but without Eno, that possibility gets thrown out the window. I could do with another More Songs About Buildings and Food (which Eno barely played a hand in) or Talking Heads: 77 (which Eno has nothing to do with at all), but the band has toned down the quirkiness to minimal levels to maximize universal appeal. If I wanted a generic band, I’d listen to a generic band, but I’ve come to love David Byrne’s “I’m a regal beagle in another life”-styled delivery, which, barring a grand total of one fucking song (“Burning Down the House”), he doesn’t do it at all.
Frankly, the album’s high standing is in part to do with its new wave tag, which is synonymous with “pop music for people who like rock music who have been brainwashed to think pop music is bad.” It’s not that being a pop album is at all a bad thing, but the real issue here is that Speaking in Tongues manifests itself as the worst of pop albums. It has all the telltale signs. It’s an album immortalized by its singles (“Burning Down the House,” “Girlfriend is Better,” “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody),” which all rank as the album’s best songs, make no mistake) and a lot of padding in between. It’s an album running on recycled ideas: the riff from “Burning Down the House” is heard again on “Girlfriend is Better,” while “Slippery People,” “I Get Wild / Wild Gravity” and “Swamp” all have similar plodding verses. And it’s an album that says absolutely nothing. 1983 had plenty of other danceable albums that spoke to the decade’s depression and answered it by moving it to the dancefloor (Power, Corrupion & Lies, The Hurting, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), to name a few; all of these are better albums). David Byrne takes the “stop making sense” line of “Girlfriend Is Better” a little too literally; none of these songs mean anything barring “This Must be the Place (Naive Melody)” (interesting subtitle there). To put it in perspective, there are no songs here about existential crises (see “Once in a Lifetime”) or ones that act as commentary about the banality of the suburban life (see “Heaven,” “The Big Country” or “Found A Job”).
But the band is still more-than-competent at this point in time, such that the grooves are still good. The choruses of “Making Flippy Floppy” is pretty solid, how each line is punctuated by alternating between a bass and keyboard line. “Burning Down the House” is a triumph in songwriting and has all the components of a good song; the acoustic riff, the tight drumfills, David Byrne’s staccato phrasing in the verse and the rather great chorus that doesn’t need meaning to it because it’s delivered with such urgency that it pretends to have meaning (probably inspiring “The roof / The roof / The roof is on fire / We don’t need no water let the motherfucker burn” a year later), while “Girlfriend Is Better” has the band’s most commanding drum thump—like—ever. And yes, thesongwriting is triumphant in both these tracks. The problem with them, and the album as a whole is that the production fails it: fucking flat and flaccid. And that is perhaps my biggest problem with the record; every song here (the ones that matter anyway, because who needs sludge like “I Get Wild / Wild Gravity”) can be found with in a more vivacious form in the live album Stop Making Sense, rendering this album absolutely obsolete.