After two quirky, but prominent and slick new wave albums, Talking Heads wanted change. Their third album Fear of Music would be a more serious take on experimenting compared to their 1978 dance-oriented album More Songs About Buildings and Food in 1978. Unlike the record that was made for 28-year-olds, the grooves on Fear of Music are claustrophobic and the material is much darker. Both “Warning Sign” and the brilliant closer “The Big Country” off Buildings and Food could’ve fit nicely on this album due to how vitriol they are, but at the same time seem too calm for the spiraling rhythmic patterns frontman David Byrne takes us from beginning to end.
Eno engaged the band to seek out a bigger sound by going deeper within the layers of their sound instead of employing the same dizzying art punk hooks and fearless romanticism — the main two ingredients of their their first two albums. Now, they’re upfront presenting more musical styles, acting as the bridge to their later work.
Fear of Music is the Heads’ most trimmed down-produced album through tone, texture, production values, song titles and subject matter. This was the album that established the group’s versatility, especially encompassing West African polyrhythms, worldbeat and even disco into the opening track, “I Zimbra.” This song particularly is the starting point that would of course dive deeper into this style on their last Eno-produced album, Remain in Light.
They also recorded the beautifully sarcastic “Heaven,” where frontman David Byrne sings in a poet manner about how Heaven is an illusion and nothing ever happens. The acoustic style this song is presented in is the opposite from what the Heads sound like—an “Eagles song.”
The dance grooves and hooks the Heads were known for, especially on their debut are still in place. However, they are more tense. And it’s not awkward at all—it is compatible and balanced, especially on the incredibly pushy and jittery cut “Cities.” It sounds like an intense disco number with the sharp and crunching riffs and driving bass and drums, which makes it easy to dance to. Simply, the song is about a man looking for a city to live in. Byrne’s lyrics are humorous and sarcastic, largely in the second verse, “Lot of rich people in Birmingham / lot of ghosts in a lot of houses, look over there! Dry ice factory / Good place to get some thinking done.” However later cuts on the album, Byrne’s lyrics become gloomy and dark.
The delicate “Air” is either about a person who is fearful and terrified of going outside or a person who is pessimistic of the way society causes and reacts to pollution. Lyrics like “Some people say not to worry about the air” could be aimed towards a person scared of simply air or it could be a political statement. Whatever way, the song includes ghastly and creepy background vocals, but is mellow and mellifluous when compared to other tracks, like the spine-chilling “Memories Can’t Wait” and the deranged “Animals.”
Nobody was recording music like “Life During Wartime” or “Mind” in 1979. With the strange sounds and effects on the final track, “Drugs,” Eno and Byrne’s eccentricity in the studio is evident. The hard hooks and grooves all blend with the dark experimental claustrophobic sound Eno brings to the production studio.
You could argue that More Songs About Buildings and Food was the Heads’ transitional record, but really it was Fear of Music. It was way ahead of its time and the production still sounds fresh and inspiring to this day. It was the height of the Heads’ creativity, expressing how weird, quirky, mysterious and fragmented they could be. Lyrically, Byrne is an ultra-paranoid who praises the common aspects of everyday life, which includes paper, air and electric guitars.
Favorite Tracks — “Cities” “Mind” “Air” and “Heaven”
Listen to Talking Heads’ Fear of Music below.