Talking Heads' 'Remain In Light' at 35: Classic Track-by-Track Album Review

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Talking Heads performing at Pavilion in Davis, California on December 5, 1983.

On their first three albums, Talking Heads made anxious, self-aware art-punk with enough pop appeal to offset the oddness. Led by yelping frontman David Byrne, whose exaggerated normal-guy persona signaled a profound discomfort with the modern world, the onetime CBGB regulars were weirdoes working within the confines of classic rock. Their music wasn’t for everyone, but by 1979, they’d notched a couple of minor hits and edged toward the mainstream.

With their landmark fourth album, Remain In Light -- released 35 years ago on October 8, 1980 -- Talking Heads changed everything and nothing all at once. Produced by Brian Eno, who’d helmed the group’s previous two LPs, it was something truly rare: a radical departure that nevertheless felt like a continuation of and improvement on everything that had come before.

Remain In Light was born at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, where Byrne and his bandmates -- keyboardist Jerry Harrison and the husband-and-wife drum-and-bass team of Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth -- arrived song-less and ready to jam. This communal approach was a curious, given that Byrne had typically brought in nearly finished compositions and that he’d recently hinted he might be done with the group.

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His most recent project had been the Eno collaboration My Life In the Bush of Ghosts, an experimental album heavily influenced by African sounds. That music found its way into the improvisational new Talking Heads tracks, though the extent to which the group was consciously trying to make an African-inspired record remains a point of debate. Byrne went so far as to include a bibliography of books on African art and culture with press releases for the album; Frantz and Weymouth have since downplayed the overt influence of African music.

Either way, Remain In Light doesn’t sound much like the three Talking Heads records that came before and it doesn’t sound anything like other post-punk or New Wave albums released circa 1980. It’s heavy on single-chord polyrhythmic jams, light on traditional pop structures or hooks. Eno constructed the tracks by looping rhythmic sections and layering instrumentation -- a method that initially left Byrne unsure of how or what to sing.

Inspired by Southern preachers, the Watergate tapes and some of those heady African texts he’d studied with Eno, Byrne wrote and recorded most of his lyrics after the group had returned from the Bahamas. His words have a freeform, impressionistic, cut-and-paste quality, but even so, Remain In Light is a record with very recognizable -- and very Talking Heads -- themes of alienation and the search for identity. Byrne’s every bit as perplexed, frightened and amused by the world as he was on the 1979 apocalyptic funk workout “Life During Wartime.” He’s taking his anxieties on holiday -- not giving them the day off.

Byrne’s vocals weren’t the only overdubs. There were horns, extra percussion bits, female background vocals and stunning synth-treated solos from avant-garde guitar hero Adrian Belew, who’d played with the likes of Frank Zappa and King Crimson. When the band hit the road to promote the album, Belew joined the expanded lineup needed to recreate the crazy clatter in a concert setting.

Even without the benefit of a major radio smash, Remain In Light reached No. 19 on the Billboard 200, the band’s highest position to that point. The lead single, “Once In a Lifetime,” missed the Hot 100 but emerged as the group’s signature song, thanks in part to a memorable video that became an MTV staple the following year. The foursome’s next album, Speaking In Tongues, climbed higher (No. 15) and produced its only Top 10 hit, “Burning Down the House” (No. 9), but Remain In Light is the creative peak: the moment when smarty-pants ideas met ants-in-pants grooves and took pop places it had never been.

Read on for our track-by-track take of this, the most strangely brilliant album from a band that did strange and brilliant better than anyone.

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“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”: Within seconds, the Heads establish the wonky world they’ll explore for much of the next 40 minutes. It’s vibrant and alive yet weirdly claustrophobic: a paradise for paranoids. Amid skittering beats, belching bass and guitars that caw like tropical birds and scamper like ants on discarded mangos, Byrne plays a spiritually suffocating “government man” who just wants to breathe easy. Good luck with that one.

“Crosseyed and Painless”: More alienation set to alien grooves, this time with rougher rock guitars and a broader sense of unease. “Lost my shape,” Byrne sings at the outset, before deciding that shapes -- and really facts of any kind -- are inherently meaningless. As Byrne unravels, Frantz and Weymouth unspool insistently frazzled funk, making madness seem rather fun.

“The Great Curve”: Probably the most African-inspired track, both in terms of music and lyrics, this pulsing six-minute polyrhythmic free-for-all shifts the focus from freaked-out Byrne to some divine female figure (maybe a stand-in for all women) who’s “gonna open our eyes up.” It’s breathless and hopeful, complete with Belew guitar solos that shriek like people dying to come out of the dark.

“Once In a Lifetime”: Props to Eno and Harrison: The keyboards really do evoke floating as Byrne thinks about all that water bubbling down below our cars and houses and meaningless little lives. Some hear the song as a rant against ‘80s materialism, but Byrne has said it’s more about switching off autopilot and taking stock of how we get to where we end up. It’s man beating a drum and looking for answers he won’t find -- same as it ever was.

“Houses In Motion”: If “Once In a Lifetime” is ambivalent about whether life is worth living, this chilly, plodding track paints a darker picture. The creepy-crawly rhythm that lit such a fire on “Born Under Punches” has slowed way down and Byrne is back to being a put-upon modern man forced to trudge sockless through a world where even that savior lady from “The Great Curve” has “closed her eyes.” Those distorted horns laid down by frequent Eno collaborator Jon Hassell suggest not the grand trumpets of the apocalypse, but rather the sounds of elephants poised to stamp you dead without even realizing it.

“Seen and Not Seen”: Another slow jam, this sparse, wobbly, spoken-word gem finds Byrne ditching all the preacher-man affects and talking like a regular guy. Over a stomp-clap rhythm reminiscent of early hip-hop, Byrne calmly tells the story of a guy who wants to change his face -- either to match his true personality or to better represent the personality he’s always wished he had. The guy’s not sure and Byrne’s not judging. We’ve all been there.

“Listening Wind”: Startlingly minimalist, this tale of a Third World terrorist prepping a mail bomb for one of the Americans who’ve muscled into his country marks a sharp turn from personal politics to global politics. The synths evoke both natural sounds and the digital blipping of Mojique’s device and Byrne again takes a nonjudgmental, sympathetic tone. As a prescient commentary on the consequences of American foreign policy, “Listening Wind” suggests Talking Heads weren’t embarking naively on their quasi-African adventure.

“The Overload”: Talking Heads go goth with this bleak six-minute unhappy ending. The trudge of “Houses In Motion” is now a muddy, hopeless slog. Harrison’s keyboards sputter like machine guns or jeep motors and there’s a sense the band is performing in some burned-out future earth, using the last dregs of electricity to power its instruments.

Listen to Remain In The Light below.