Counterbalance: Talking Heads – Speaking in Tongues

Put away that gun. This party's simple. We're talking about the 1137th most acclaimed album of all time. (That Talking Heads' 1983 commercial smash is this week's Counterbalance. Turn like a wheel inside a wheel.
Talking Heads
Speaking in Tongues

Klinger: Remain in Light. When you talk about Talking Heads, you’re going to have to talk about how great Remain in Light is. People love that album, and rightly so. Few albums have brought such a diverse array of musical styles into one funky intellectual gumbo of sound. After that, you’ve got to talk about those great early records — 77, More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music. Bold statements that bring the daring of punk into tight focus while maintaining pop sensibilities. Smart, funny, fearless. Brilliant.

Ooh, and don’t forget Stop Making Sense. Handily one of the greatest live albums in history, and one of the few live albums that can be seen as superseding the studio album it’s meant to be supporting. In this case, the album is Speaking in Tongues, which for some reason is at the decidedly low end of the critical assessment as Talking Heads albums go. It’s at No. 1137 on the Great List, outranking only Little Creatures (No. 1433), True Stories (bubbling under) and Naked (which, let’s be honest…). And yet, I’ve been listening to Speaking in Tongues now off and on for over 30 years and let me tell you it is an out-and-out joy. I love Remain in Light but I’m going to come right out and say that this album hews closer to the craft of songwriting. Which might make the actual songs more indelible. From the hit single “Burning Down the House” to album closer/minor hit/maybe their best song (?) “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”, there aren’t too many musical moments that don’t connect on some level. The brain, the heart, the butt. And I can’t lie to any of those parts of me, Mendelsohn. So yeah, Speaking in Tongues. OK if I fly the flag for this one?

Mendelsohn: Listen to me, Touch Monkey, you can do whatever you want. Fly flags, turn up the volume, burn down the house. I don’t care. I’ll be over there in that corner letting this record wash over me like the sacrament.

I sort of figured this record was in the Top 500 somewhere so I never bothered to check the ranking, seeing the number 1137 feels like a bit of a kick in the gut, because I love this album. And now I just don’t understand. The world seems out of whack all of the sudden because here we have this amazing album that the collective criterati has left to wither in the cold. Well, outside the Top 1000 anyway.

Klinger: Yeah well, No. 1137 is nothing to sneeze at, when you consider all the albums of all time. Still, when just about your entire catalog is sitting above the 400 line, you can’t help but wonder where you went wrong. Of course, one of the things I’ve heard Talking Heads members grouse about is the fact that Remain in Light sold considerably less than their prior efforts, so maybe we’re all looking at things through different telescopes.

Mendelsohn: Here’s the thing, my knowledge of the Talking Heads is lacking. I never had a chance to dig through their catalog. That being said, I feel like I’ve heard this record before and not in the literal sense because I have been listening to it nonstop for the past month. I mean, I’ve heard this record before, in the metaphysical sense like I was abducted by aliens, had this record shot into my brain with the knowledge left dormant until the time was right to fully appreciate the Talking Heads. That time is now, Klinger. My eyes are open. I’m going to go searching for some long forgotten memory of listening to this album when I was three years old, riding around in the back of a station wagon (I don’t think it is there, my parents don’t strike me as the kind of folks who were into the Talking Heads). In the meantime, there is a lot of wonderful material between “Burning Down the House” and “This Must Be the Place”. Why isn’t this record beloved by all? And what is wrong with everyone else?

Klinger: Well, it may have something to do with the fact that Speaking in Tongues was a commercial success, which sort of robs it of its cult factor. That’s a possibility. I know for years I’ve kind of discounted it on the grounds that after seeing the video 600 times on MTV, I didn’t really need to hear “Burning Down the House” again. It’s also possible that after Remain in Light the slightly more conventional approach seemed like something of a letdown. To which I might retort that there’s something to be said for having that pop focus, because it led to some pretty great songs. On Speaking in Tongues, David Byrne seems more like a singer of songs and less like a bemused alien cataloging the bizarre pageant of life among these humans we speak of. I mean, “Slippery People” was funky and catchy enough to be covered by the Staple Singers, which had to be the ultimate compliment to a group for whom R&B was such an influence (ref: their version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River”).

And again, Speaking in Tongues did end up getting overshadowed by the success of Stop Making Sense, so it’s also feasible that these songs are thought of as rough drafts for their live counterparts. And it’s hard not to hear some of these songs without having the visuals from the film pop up in your head, from the living room lamp in “This Must Be the Place” to Byrne’s faces throughout “Swamp”. But the band still seems plenty engaged on Speaking in Tongues even if they’re not visibly dancing in unison before your eyes.

Mendelsohn: We have seen numerous examples of bands hitting commercial success without it slowing down their critical cache. Radiohead springs to mind. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that Radiohead placed a record outside the Top 1000. Even the underwhelming Hail to the Thief sits no. 512 on the Great List. And while I know I can’t compare talking heads to radio heads, it feels a bit skewed to see Speaking in Tongues exiled so far own the list. What did the Talking Heads do wrong? Tightened the song structures? Brought more funk? Wrote a couple hit songs? I get the fact that this record is considered feeder material for the great Stop Making Sense, but I’ve seen the movie, I’ve listened to the albums, I still don’t get it. There isn’t a weak spot on this record. It starts with the strong “Burning Down the House”, and hits strength after strength. The sweet electro funk of “Girlfriend is Better” and “Slippery People” is exquisite. “Swamp” is the weirdest exhibition of pop music gone so wrong it has to be right. Find me someone who can resist singing along with the chorus and we will probably be standing in a graveyard. “Pull Up the Roots” has that great guitar work that points toward the coming rise of indie rock some 20 years later. And then you get the sweet, laid back pop gem of “This Must Be the Place”. I don’t know what to say. I am genuinely confused.

Maybe this is all the consequence of context. I never saw “Burning Down the House” on MTV, I don’t see the lamp when I hear “This Must Be the Place”, the running in place is a stunning visual but it is completely ancillary. And that, I suppose, adequately sums up the ability of the younger generations to move between genres, picking and choosing what ever strikes their fancy regardless of the music’s perceived status within the critical industrial complex. Without the context and gatekeeper shame, there isn’t much to stop new listeners from finding the joys of groups that would never have been considered cool. As someone who is old enough to remember the importance of the gatekeepers, I thought I would never be able to experience that loss of context. It’s an odd sensation.

Klinger: Makes sense but again, it’s not like this album was panned, even if it’s not as revered as their other works. The original Rolling Stone review hails the album for its “sense of purpose and playfulness”, which sounds about right. When the group makes its way into the pseudo-blues of “Swamp”, the energy and the humor come right through the grooves. I think the busman’s holidays that the group took during the interim between Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues (Byrne recorded the seminal My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with Brian Eno, while Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz cracked the charts with Tom Tom Club) energized the group, even if it was to be somewhat short-lived. I’m not sure what all went down between the group over the course of the ’80s, but I do know that they’re all pretty weird about everything, and that’s a shame.

You’re right to call attention to the musical prowess of the band here — even if the album is chockablock with guest musicians, the sheer inventiveness of Weymouth, Frantz and Jerry Harrison is every bit as central to the band’s cachet as Byrne’s lyrics. In lesser hands, I suspect that Byrne’s tendencies would have been too far afield to authentically cut loose. But the group seems to add a layer of warmth to even his most alienated stylings, and they anchored the sound in a way that’s as steady and in the pocket as one of Weymouth’s bass lines. This confluence of sound and vision is something that happens only rarely, and if I didn’t have to relive my painfully awkward adolescence all over again, I’d find myself wishing it was 1983 again.