A Strange Turning Point: Talking Heads’ ‘Fear of Music’

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Sire Records

After two solid slick and upbeat new wave albums, Talking Heads were ready to change. Their third studio album Fear of Music was the second full-length album the band would record with the supreme Brian Eno. You wouldn’t think their previous album More Songs About Buildings and Food in 1978 was produced by Eno, since it doesn’t include that brilliant “Eno touch” to it, like seen on David Bowie’s magnificent Berlin Trilogy and Devo’s perfect debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!. The grooves are still claustrophobic like they were on the Heads’ debut album Talking Heads: 77, but on tracks like “Warning Sign” and “The Big Country” seem like they could’ve fit nicely on Fear of Music.

The band focused on seeking out a bigger sound production by going deeper into their grooves. They presented more musical styles and were seen as a band that wanted to be taken serious artistically in style and not just seen as pioneers of new wave music or quirky artists.

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.

10/10

Classic Tracks – “Cities,” “Mind,” “Air,” “Paper” and “I Zimbra”

Ehh – Nothing at all 

Listen to Talking Heads’ Fear of Music below. 

 

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