965 - Talking Heads 'Speaking In Tongues' (1983)

My Rating: 2.33 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: X
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): 21/15

Favourite Tracks: Girlfriend Is Better, Making Flippy Floppy
Least-Favourite Track: I Get Wild: Wild Gravity

I have always had a problem with Talking Heads but I've absolutely no idea why. They sound like the kind of band I really should like, with a charismatic frontman, original songs, inventive production and yet... it's a bit like one of those recipes where you combine all your favourite ingredients but end up with a meal that just tastes wrong. Like a KFC Zinger Tower Burger.

Since just about everyone I know seems to love Talking Heads I approached this album really wanting to like it, or at the very least to understand why I didn't like it, but several listens later and I have to confess that I'm still not totally convinced & I still can't figure out why.

Plus points first. For a 1983 album that leans heavily on keyboards & electronics it is remarkably un-80's sounding. There's none of your schmaltzy digital piano presets here - the synth positively shrieks, wobbles & belches all over tracks like Making Flippy Floppy & Girlfriend Is Better, with the latter including a bonkers solo that is more Throbbing Gristle than Thompson Twins. I liked that.

I also liked David Byrne, who invests his nonsensical lyrics with the kind of authoritative intensity that makes you feel like you're the one who is missing the point. E.g., on Swamp he sings "Click click see ya later/Beta beta no time to rest/Pika pika risky business/All that blood will never cover that mess". No wonder then that his lyrics are a bit of a thorny subject; I've seen some reviews that dismiss it all as meaningless gibberish & yet I've seen others that try to unearth all sorts of hidden meanings & metaphors. Actually both views are missing the point; in this interview (former Heads producer) Brian Eno said that Byrne combined words together largely for their sonic effect, using them as a kind of musical instrument to create interesting sounds & rhythms. In that sense, I'd have to say his lyrics succeed.

So what's my problem then? Perhaps it's partly one of expectations - I was anticipating an album by Talking Heads but it is so dominated by David Byrne that it just doesn't sound much like a group anymore. Byrne's voice thunders across every track; every abrasive noise or twitchy synth reflects his character to such an extent that there's hardly any space left for the guitar, bass & drums. They forge an uneasy alliance with all the electronics anyway - on Moon Rocks the funky guitar licks & percussion integrate reasonably well, but on tracks like Slippery People or I Get Wild they're rendered so far in the background as to be largely superfluous.

The truth is I still don't know why Talking Heads leave me a little cold. I used to work with a guy who absolutely hated Green Onions by Booker T & the MG's. It puzzled me how anyone could dislike that record so I asked him one day & he answered "Oh I just don't get it." As flimsy as that sounds perhaps that's all there is to it sometimes.


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