Creem JUNE 1981 - by Richard C. Walls


"You see, the problem is that people, particularly people who write, assume that the meaning of a song is vested in the lyrics. To me that has never been the case. There are very few songs I can think of where I can remember the words, actually, let alone think that those are the center of the meaning. For me, music in itself carries a whole set of messages which are very, very rich and complex, and words either serve to exclude certain ones of those, or point up certain others that aren't really in there, or aren't worth saying, or something." - Brian Eno

Apparently this record was created both before and after the recent Eno/Byrne/Talking Heads collaboration, Remain In Light. It was first completed before Remain, held up for legal reasons involving the use of a tape of the late evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman (which doesn't appear on the finished album), reworked after Remain was finished, and now finally released. So, expectedly, it shares many of the concerns of that album - African polyrhythms, modern funk melodies and structures, exotic non-funk melodies, and repetition (of course). The main difference here, aside from shorter songs, is that there are no original lyrics. Instead, the words come readymade from a variety of taped sources such as a radio talk show host, a Lebanese mountain singer, and an exorcist in action, and each tape has been altered to fit a surrounding musical track (thirteen musicians are involved including Byrne and Eno and as usual with this type of music it's often difficult to pinpoint who has done exactly what to what instrument, but what does is matter when each played part is only a component to be reworked and altered by the masters of the tape?). For example, the track Qu'Ran is made up of a tape of Algerian Muslims chanting the Koran which has been chopped and fitted to a musical track consisting of a moderately funky bass line, small percussions and smaller animals, and a whirling synthesizer (the intention here seems somewhat rude as the song evokes ludicrous images of devout Muslims doing Temptations-like choreography between bursts of chanting).

Although this approach seems to have evolved from Eno's continuing desire to create non-self-conscious lyrics (the problem of creating lyrics whose meanings, intended or not, won't distract from the music is solved by not creating the lyrics), the dexterity with which the tapes are juggled and land neatly in place is impressive in a way which draws the attention away from any overall impact the music might have. So one problem is solved and another, similar one is created. Also, the found lyrics result in the songs seeming a little slight, not in the sense of light, floating ambient textures (the sound is as densely rhythmic as you could want) but the ambiguity of the lyrics of Remain In Light (or even better, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)) is infinitely preferable to the documentary scraps used here.

Does it sound like a drag? Well it isn't, really. It's always interesting, even when it sounds too contrived, and two of the cuts are particularly effective: The Jezebel Spirit, a genuine exorcism set against an appropriately ominous thump and clatter (highly danceable too), and Moonlight In Glory, an eerie piece featuring The Moving Star Hall Singers of Sea Islands, Georgia and a voice wailing like the lonesome spirit of humanity, "Moooon...o the moon."

Overall, this album strikes me as a clever and interesting but, with the two exceptions just mentioned, unaffecting experiment. But clever and interesting is more than a lots of albums offer and this one is recommended even if listening to it is like watching a good trick - a great trick, even - that dazzles and involves but ultimately doesn't mean enough.