Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music At 40

Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music At 40

Posted 5 Aug 2019
talking heads
Talking Heads in Hollywood, California (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Looking back at Talking Heads’ third studio album, Fear Of Music (1979) on its 40th anniversary is a stark reminder that some albums aren’t timeless; some albums simply exist in a dimension of their very own. 

Fear of Music tells no narrative; it personifies the human mind at the brink of mental overload. Like its black, corrugated packaging (resembling a manhole cover), the album is lyrically disorienting, musically foreboding, inescapably urban and obsessed with texture. The powerfully paranoid body of work riffs on themes of restlessness, dissolution and instability; brought to life by hypnotic sounds weaving bleak motifs through relentless, tangled beats. It’s as much the pop music equivalent of postmodern art as it is an apocalypse of the mind. 

The music warps and suspends time to make parts that at first seem only distantly related, come together to form the particulars of a moment, a revelatory instant, a freeze-frame where only the smallest details matter. The song titles lay out the details in a sort of table of contents…"Mind," "Paper," "Cities," "Air," "Heaven," "Animals," "Electric Guitar," "Drugs"… leading you through a strange, tense and fractured landscape where logic dissolves and para-logic reigns. 

There are no smoke and mirrors, the band relies on a simple device: repetition. Each tune is a chain of unswerving rhythms, linked together in a matrix of interlocking riffs. The opening track, “I Zimbra” stakes Talking Heads’ claim to pure mechanization as, one by one, the instruments click into place, fusing Motorik and Afrobeat with futurist harmonies that complement the chanted syllables of a poem by Twenties Dadaist, Hugo Ball. It’s like a new wave spy film on steroids: 

“I Zimra” 

In “Mind” we find chaos, executed with precision. Byrne double-tracks his vocals in ragged octaves on the chorus, effectively making it twice as plaintive, while a giddy, slapstick synthesizer line cuts away any trace of serious sentiment. In “Paper” Byrne sings like a man whose hair is on fire. His natural voice jumps with excitement, as the urgent bass and jagged funk guitars propel his frenzied state until you’re entirely convinced that his very life depends on fitting, whatever ‘it’ is on the paper. “Cities” delineates the chronic and intense over-stimulation of the urban jungle, led by Tina Weymouth’s bassline, confidently strutting its way through the musical panic. 

“Cities”

Despite proclaiming to be neither, the album’s rock disco lead single, “Life During Wartime” sounds like a party, that started in someone’s lounge room, and no one’s quite sure who invited the conga players, but it sounds so good that there’s no time, or need, to stop and find out. 

“Life During Wartime”

There's an edge of solipsistic madness to what’s arguably the LP’s spookiest track, “Memories Can’t Wait.” It instantly catches you off guard with swirling time signatures and a murky, film-noir vocal, echoed, reverbed, tape-reversed and dizzyingly sped up as Byrne laments on an endless “party in my mind”. Enter “Air”, shimmering through like an acid-drenched, 70s tropical scene change; but the slice of sunshine only serves to further heighten Byrne’s sensitivity as even the air turns on him, hits him in the face and breaks his heart. Robert Fripp’s guitar phases through with a brooding and discordant solo, further unsettling the decidedly neurotic track.

And just when all the strangled, fractured, paralogical visions overwhelm, the album delivers relief in the form of “Heaven”. Chris Frantz holds down steady hi-hat eighth notes for the entire cut; creating a sense of time being held at bay in a resonance chamber of complexly intertwining riffs. 

“Heaven”

Have you ever wondered if your dog is side-eying you? Whether your cat is controlling you? Fear of Music is an album full of warnings. In nearly every song, Byrne sounds the alarm with almost childlike directness, but perhaps none is more paranoid than “Animals” where he questions the true motives of suspiciously regular pets who set bad examples and try to change your life. The band’s musical vocabulary then radically extends further in the stabbing dissonance and odd meters of “Electric Guitar” where Byrne's use of pronouns, rather than imply informality, breathes worry and (if you believe his version of events) deviousness into even the most benign objects. Then, in a finalé fitting of such a precariously skewed album, balanced on the brink of perception, is “Drugs”; a song that’s not so much a song about drugs as it is a stand-in for drugs.

“Drugs”

Fear Of Music is a glimpse inside the Talking Heads’ private, paranoid universe; one that swirls ever dangerously close to yours and mine, should we ever be tempted to really get up close and personal with the details of everyday life. 

40 years since it’s 1979 release, Fear Of Music remains a timeless paradigm of mathematical musical mayhem; intertwining rhythm’s, propelled by stark, driving basslines, marching through a wash of dissonant soundscapes; punctuated by Byrne, obsessively trying to convince himself of something…what, we may never be sure. 

Listen to Fear of Music on Spotify:

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