The first two Talking Heads albums have the disadvantage of being inconsistent compared to Fear of Music and Remain in Light (even keeping in mind that Remain features a noticeable and oft-cited drop in quality in its second half); hiring Brian Eno was one of the greatest strategic maneuvers that the band ever made, but the sound that everyone knows Brian Eno for didn’t take place until Fear of Music – a much more atmospheric listen than this one because of Eno’s handiwork. (By contrast, losing Brian Eno after Remain in Light was one of the worst decisions – conscious or otherwise – that the band ever made, and it’s no coincidence that the band started sucking after Eno’s departure. Yeah, you heard me: Speaking in Tongues sucks. It sucks because the production sucks – go figure.) That being said, I shouldn’t completely discount Eno’s production here; he certainly was no stranger to non-atmospheric pop albums (as it were), and it is partly his doing that More Songs About Buildings and Food is better than Talking Heads: 77. But it’s mostly the band, methinks, who were getting better: tighter musicianship and smarter (or at least more informed) lyrics that remain relevant today. The last thing overall that I have to say is that the cover is great. Ditto the title. And that the second half is better than the first half, which I rarely ever listen to expect the opener. Let’s examine song-by-song:
1. “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel”: a whirlwind in 2 minutes and change; endlessly fun, recommended for when you’re walking around feeling pompous. This is Frantz’s best drumming on the record, punctuating all the right parts and pushing the song forward (ie. the drumrolls), and Byrne’s lyrics here are practically the album’s mission statement – he’s better than you. He’ll walk in circles around you after he walks around the world. Cue a fun guitar solo and then more badassery.
2. “With Our Love” – marginal. I mostly stay for the machine-gun percussion (unfortunately understated) that bumps things along and for the twitchy guitar hook. Byrne is enthusiastic throughout, like the different way he sings “trouble” in the last few instances of the choruses or the way he suddenly yells “I think they want to forget! And they! Hope that this time” like he’s angry, though it’s hard to tell just who he’s angry at. I don’t think the sudden slowdown for the title’s lines was all that great of an idea either, emphasizing a hook that really wasn’t there to begin with.
3. “The Good Thing” – likeable; Byrne’s singing is typically yelp, but in the verses, his voice is sweet, to say nothing of the easy-to-follow melody.
4. “Warning Sign” – Eno’s effects on Byrne’s vocals annoy me, actually; they’ll work on it better on the next album (he sounds paranoid, with no focus on that paranoia). But the guitar hook is solid.
5. “The Girls Want to be With the Girls” – most of the magic here is the choruses, where the cadence of the crunch of the organ brings out the confusion of the boys at the sexual climate. Actually, the lyrics here seem to have inspired a lot of Belle & Sebastian songs (come on: “Girls are getting into abstract analysis/Wouldn’t 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 that’s saying nothing of the sentiment found in the choruses, “There’s just no love/When there’s boys and girls/And the girls want to be with the girls.”)
6. ”Found A Job” – fucking excellent! Love how it opens with the word “Damn,” which is phoneticallya sharp word in its monosyllabic strength and its harsh d-sound. And in the hands of Byrne, who yells it like he’s just tossed the remote at the wall? Song opens with a bang. Combine that with the twitch-funk of the guitar (“HIT IT!”), or the punctual melody of the choruses (“Judy’s in the BEDROOM, inventing situATIONS”), and the song’s message of “If your work isn’t what you love, then something isn’t right” comes alive.
7. ”Artists Only” – compare Chris Frantz’ drumming here (bolstered by Tina Weymouth’s galloping bass line) to the percussion on “With Our Love.” Listen closely and you can hear a ghost whisper in the background in the second half.
8. “I’m Not in Love”: – more of “Found a Job”’s twitch-funk guitar, this time crashing to a complete halt during Byrne’s ruminations, which themselves fold back into the song’s rather unstoppable rhythm.
9. “Stay Hungry” – the album’s poppiest, despite the fact that there isn’t a chorus; it’s because everything here is a hook, and it’s hard to say no to any of them, like the climbing guitar punctuated by a crescendoing drums in the intro; the cadences punctuating Byrne’s vocals (“Stay hungry, stay hungry, stay hungry…”); or the keyboard line in the outro. If I were up to me, I’d move this up to follow “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel.”
10. ”Take Me to the River” – solid, if probably overrated. I get the feeling most people would select this as the album’s highlight, and it’s definitely not in my top three of this album, to say nothing of where it ranks in the rest of Heads’ discography. Eno’s at his most noticeable here, turning an anemic song into one that’s simultaneously atmospheric and groovy. But Byrne is the main draw: the way he holds “stay” at the 1:02 mark; the way his voice flutters when he sings “washing medown” (ie. at the 1:30 mark) in a way that his voice matches the high-pitched keyboard sonar.
11. “The Big Country” – an anomaly in their discography, and also one of their best songs. Listen to that slide guitar hook! Fucking excellent, isn’t it? I mean anomaly because it’s one of the few times one of the most frantic of bands led by one of the most frantic singers of all time slows down (to a degree, anyway – the whole thing is still quite rhythmic), and the result is breathtaking. With respect to the lyrics, notice the shift from greatness to questioning said greatness: “Nice weather down there/I see the school and the houses where the kids are/Places to park…” to “Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas” before concluding “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.” Reading the annotations over at Genius disappoints me, because whoever annotated them interprets Byrne’s disdain in the song as solely directed towards rural lifestyles. If that were the case, you wouldn’t have the modifiers throughout his ‘compliments’ in the second verse: “I guess it’s healthy, I guess the air is clean / I guess those people have fun with their neighbours and friends…” No, the song as far as I can tell, is about America, both the urban and the rural, and specifically, how it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. (He has another critique about America titled “Miss America,” a wonderful highlight from his solo album Feelings of 1997.) Love how by the song’s end, David Byrne is too tired for words, losing himself to “Goo”’s and “Ga”’s (one of the best ad-libs I can think of, at the top of my head), before a guitar solo closes out the song.