Fear of Music
Released: August 1979
Chart Peak: #21
Weeks Charted: 30
Certified Gold: 9/17/85
Time stands still when you're cracking up. At the brink of mental overload, there's a revelatory instant -- a frozen frame in which everything fits together in new ways. Logic dissolves, paralogic reigns. And in that precarious moment, the world is fixed in place, skewed and renewed.
David Byrne's lyrics on Talking Heads' Fear of Music are paralogical visions stated with almost childlike directness: he thinks that air hits him in the face, that animals want to change his life, that "someone controls electric guitar." By itself, this perspective makes Byrne's songs fascinating. But what makes Talking Heads my favorite and probably the best rock band anywhere is that they've invented an audio analog to their view from the brink: rock music that warps and suspends time.
They use a simple device: repetition. Unswerving rhythms, immobile harmonies. Each tune is a chain of sections linked by rhythm, each section a matrix of interlocking riffs. "I Zimbra" stakes Talking Heads' claim to pure mechanization. One by one, the instruments click into place in a rhythm pattern fleshed out by Afro-futurist harmonies and topped by the meaningless chanted syllables of a poem by Twenties Dadaist Hugo Ball. At composition's end, Robert Fripp's guitar phases through the whole pulsing assemblage like the shuttle of a high-speed loom.
Yet Byrne's vocals keep the music in the present tense. He sings like a Mouseketeer trapped in an endless anything-can-happen day: rattled, wide-eyed, quavery, breaking into glossolalia whenever he runs out of words. Sometimes he slides into sync with the other members of the band, sometimes he dithers above them in lunatic abandon. Though his cohorts play like an efficient machine, David Byrne maintains the beauty of human error.
Last year's More Songs about Buildings and Food signaled that the group, on its second album, had perfected its tech-mech music. The LP was a manic, oddly funky, hard-edged, catchy masterpiece. On Fear of Music, Talking heads take that style and proceed to torture-test it under every distortion they and coproducer Brian Eno can devise. "Animals," with its dissonance and odd meters (5/4 and 7/4), radically extends the band's musical vocabulary, while other liberties (the jumpy, angular countermelody in "Air," Tina Weymouth's off-the-beat bass line in "Mind") are infiltrated into the more "normal"-sounding numbers. And the new record is programmed to emphasize its most ominous cuts: it opens with "I Zimbra," winds up side one with "Memories Can't Wait," and closes side two with "Animals," "Electric Guitar" and "Drugs." Whereas More Songs about Buildings and Food was crisp and outgoing, Fear of Music is often deliberately, brilliantly disorienting. Like its black, corrugated packaging (which resembles a manhole cover), the album is foreboding, inescapably urban and obsessed with texture.
Fear of Music is Talking Heads' most elaborate production so far, teeming with overdubs and effects the group doesn't try to reproduce in concert. Sounds emerge out of nowhere, echoes tangle the beat, instrumental timbres form unholy alloys. For the LP's spookiest tune, "Memories Can't Wait," the mix is as murky as a film-noir interior. Byrne's vocal is echoed, reverbed, tape-reversed and dizzyingly sped up while he sings about an endless "party in my mind." In the final verse, when suddenly "Everything is very quiet," his voice slips out front, the key changes and the echoes slink away. It's hardly subtle, but it works.
Though New Wave conservatives may be appalled at such elaborate studio tinkering, the songs don't suffer a bit. They're not sweetened -- they're seasoned. In "Mind," Byrne double-tracks his vocals in ragged octaves on the chorus (which is inspired: e.g., "I need something to change your mind"), ostensibly making it twice as plaintive. But all the while, a giddy, slapstick synthesizer line is busy cutting away any trace of sentiment.
For me, Fear of Music's least interesting track is the rock-disco-like "Life during Wartime," which sounds almost live. The problem isn't the production but the song itself. While "Life during Wartime" is both structurally and harmonically conventional, boasts a silly chorus lyric and even adds a conga player to the group, the tune's real trouble is that it lacks Talking Heads' usual counterpoint. On the other hand, some of the words are arresting: "I got three passports, a couple of visas/You don't even know my real name."
Byrne has drastically shifted his verbal approach for Fear of Music. in his lyrics for earlier records, he let himself be self-conscious: he'd observe, analyze and make judgements. His new lyrics virtually eliminate abstraction -- he doesn't consider, he feels. There's very little past and no future, just a jumble of sensations, as if it's all he can do to handle right now. The songs are invariably in the first person and mention very few outside characters: the singer's inner world is his last refuge.
This way lies solipsism perhaps. But David Byrne's private, paranoid universe is dangerously close to yours and mine. "Cities," in which a homeless Byrne has to find himself "a city to live in," fades in with a riff and the sound of sirens. I'd played Fear of Music more than a dozen times before I realized that the sirens weren't outside my window.
- John Pareles, Rolling Stone, 11/15/79.
By far the group's strongest LP yet, this third album fully realizes the producing talents of Eno and the lyrical/musical abilities of the art rock-new wave band. The sensuous and subtle rhythms, applied sparingly in the past, as in "Take Me To The River" and "Psycho Killer," predominate here with "I Zimbra" and "Mind" merging into disco though they are plainly avant-garde. The centerpiece is "Life During Wartime," a chilling account of what life in the U.S. may be like in the next war. Despite more commercial instrumentation, David Byrne's vocals and lyrics can be as obtuse and irritating as ever. Best cuts: "Life During Wartime," "Mind," "Air," "I Zimbra."
- Billboard, 1979.
David Byrne's celebration of paranoia is a little obsessive, but like they say, that doesn't mean somebody isn't trying to get him. I just wish material as relatively expansive as "Found a Job" or "The Big Country" were available to open up the context a little; that way, a plausible prophecy like "Life During Wartime" might come off as cautionary realism instead of ending up in the nutball corner with self-referential fantasies like "Paper" and "Memories Can't Wait." And although I'm impressed with the gritty weirdness of the music, it is narrow -- a little sweetening might help. A-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
As the musical values move forward and become more edgy and rhythmically propulsive, the tension between the music and Byrne's uniquely fascinating vocals has diminished. There are moments when everything coalesces ("Life During Wartime") and rises to the level of the band's best, and that's a fairly potent level. While this is still a fascinating and effective musical statement by one of the few original groups creating in the late seventies, too much of the material doesn't quite measure up and too much of the production is intrusive. The sound is first-rate, with great separation and clarity. B
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
A weird, dance-worthy album was made creepy by Byrne's paranoid vision and Eno's dense production. But "Life during Wartime" is one hell of a single. * * * *
- John Floyd, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Fear of Music was darker and denser than More Songs About Buildings and Food, employing more polyrhythms to drive the chanted vocals of "I Zimbra" and Byrne's apocalyptic visions in "Life During Wartime." * * * * 1/2
- Gary Graff, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
With Fear of Music, Talking Heads drilled deep into a seam of paranoia that their first two albums had only scraped at. Talking Heads: 77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food were offbeat slices of pop that deconstructed life in culture-lite America. On Fear of Music, David Byrne turned his withering gaze inward, and dissected his own anxiety-ridden mind.
This cutting self-analysis is backed by a bleaker, denser sound. Tracks such as "Animals" -- a prime cut of psychosis that sees Byrne bark distrust at our furry neighbors -- and "Mind" -- a funeral song for a dead love affair -- build up an atmosphere of menace through simple but skewed funk-driven repetitions.
Brian Eno's hyper-processed production adds to the sense of foreboding. The firmer Roxy Music star, who had also produced 1978's More Songs..., piled strange sonic effects onto Fear of Music, -- a marked departure from the live-in-the-studio sound of the group's first two albums. Riffs are stretched and fragmented on "Electric Guitar," ghostly backing vocals -- provided by bassist Tina Weymouth's sisters -- float in and out in "Air," and Byrne's visions of mental breakdown on "Memories Can't Wait" are loaded with distortion and waves of echo.
The band's journey to the dark side confused many British fans (Fear Of Music only reached No. 29 in the UK chart), but critics and record buyers on the other side of the Atlantic loved the album's experimental sounds. Legendary music hack Lester Bangs declared it "the best Heads' album yet," and Fear of Music charted at No. 21 in the Billboard 100, higher than any previous Talking Heads release.
- Theunis Bates, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
Main Page | Readers' Favorites | The Classic 500 | Other Seventies Discs | Search The RockSite/The Web