The Wire JANUARY 2004 - by Rob Young


I've got money now... Warning signs of things to come. So sings David Byrne on 1978's More Songs About Buildings And Food. Budget has certainly been lavished on Once In A Lifetime, with fifty-five tracks and thirteen video clips selected from the entire life-span of Talking Heads - and Byrne was right, like so many groups who are lavished with the cash of their record companies, they ran out of steam trying to keep the hits coming. But as this set proves, it took them a while cruising along rock's alleys and mudtracks before they eventually reached their particular road to nowhere. Back when they didn't have money, art student Byrne, playing the existential klutz, feigned dumb to ask the Big Questions: what is love, what do we do in a country that acts like it hates its citizen (the formative years of this group were the dying years of the post-Nixon administration, even though they made their name during the Carter era), what do we do if someone attacks us?

Famously, of course, the signature attraction of Talking Heads was Byrne's deadpanning for gold in the stream of quotidian life. Even in the earliest tracks collected here, like Love --> Building On Fire and I Wish You Wouldn't Say That, his interest in the banality of the surface of American life is never quite free of the shadows of authority and delusion: is the narrator of Don't Worry About The Government really a successful self-made man, or a mediocrity who falsely believes himself working for The Man? Talking Heads always excelled when courting such ambiguities - a hokey amiability that might, like John Goodman's Walter in The Big Lebowski, flip into violent derangement at one wrong word.

Byrne taps into the sense of new salvation, day after day, that is a peculiar feature of American life: his characters perpetually find themselves waking up in a new town, in a new state of mind (New Feeling), or grappling with antisocial tendencies they can't explain (the immortal Psycho Killer). But the archness was never quite held at bay. In The Big Country, which Byrne's notebook describes as Lands, peoples and their emotions (as seen by an impartial observer... God or someone in an airplane) heart-rending geography, the observer catalogues the picture perfect layout of a town below before screaming, I wouldn't live there if you paid me. Facsimiles of Byrne's notebooks show working sketches for an entire album called The Big Country, with a map of the USA plastered across a gatefold. It never happened for them, but at the same time Laurie Anderson was working on the enormous stage show that became United States.

Their musical arrangements, especially in the early years, are still remarkable - sailing to leeward of full blown punk à la Television, Pere Ubu or Patti Smith. A rarely suppressed, clippy lilt of sunshine guitar shows that, even early on, they were straining to breathe the air of Africa - an interest which Byrne has pursued via the esoteric World Music releases on his Luaka Bop label. Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town lopes like a Meters skank with a tropicalised frosting of Jamaican steel drums. Warning Sign kicks off with a dubbed out drum and twang-bass opening that could be Tortoise, HIM or any of the Chicago post-rockers. Yet throughout the three discs, it's impossible to overlook how rusty the Tina Weymouth/Chris Frantz rhythm section was, their monotony held in check - whether of their own volition, it remains unclear. It's not funky in and of itself: the group relied on the Afroid night-flights that Eno shipped into the mid-period LPs like Fear Of Music (1979) and Remain In Light (1980). Reheard after a long lay-off, tracks like I Zimbra, Born Under Punches and Crosseyed And Painless sound caught in a perpetual holding pattern above Airport Fourth World, never quite able to land. But it's not all disappointments. The paranoid, survivalist city-dweller that monologues Life During Wartime is Byrne's greatest lyrical character, and the song resonates with renewed force in today's threatened cities. Here, and on the tour de force Once In A Lifetime, the group achieve their highest potential. Disc three, which deals with the group's old age albums Little Creatures (1985), True Stories (1986) and Naked (1988), is almost negligible; the references to Country rock, FM pop, airport funk and more become too weakly digested in the mix, and Byrne's previously fey delivery gets all Big Suit 'n' preachy on your ass.

A word must be spared for the bemusing but undeniably arresting package, decked in Vladmir Dubossarsky's and Alexander Vinogradov's PoMo fauves. Production values are unexpectedly high, with essays by Rick Moody, the ubiquitous David Fricke, memoirs by group members, timelines, great visual documentation that pictures trinkets, notes and ephemera from the entire Talking Heads life-span, and plenty of photos. The inclusion of Storytelling Giant, an entire disc of video promos from Once In A Lifetime to Road To Nowhere, makes it excellent value for money. But you'll have to construct a special shelf to hold the awkwardly formatted thing, which has the dimensions of a small plank.