“Fear of Music” by Talking Heads (1979)
The so-called New Wave didn’t appeal to me when it gained popularity in the late ’70s, mainly because I was under the impression that anything recorded after, say, 1969 wasn’t worth a listen.
If you’ve been following this list, you might think that’s still my opinion. But I have expanded my horizons …
One of the newer bands I did enjoy at the time was Talking Heads. When “Fear of Music” came out, I noticed it was produced by Brian Eno, whose work I’d gotten to know through his collaborations with David Bowie. So I decided to give the album a try.
During the ensuing decades, I’ve come to have great respect for the work of David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison and the inimitable Martina Weymouth. The band’s first four albums are considered to be landmarks in the evolution of rock music.
But most critics consider “Fear of Music,” the third album, to be a cut slightly below the other three.
I guess there’s some merit to that opinion. “Talking Heads ’77” and “More Songs About Building and Food” exhibit the lean side of the band’s formative years, with their stark instrumentation providing a fitting complement to Byrne’s neurotic vocal stylings.
The lion’s share of critics consider “Remain in Light,” the fourth album, to be Talking Heads’ magnum opus, as it melds the band’s initial quirkiness with African-inspired rhythms for a successful exercise in Worldbeat.
“Fear of Music” bridges the two styles, not quite abandoning the earlier motifs while not quite mastering the newer ones.
Maybe because it’s as focused as the other three albums cited, “Fear of Music” makes for a fascinating listen, from the polyrhythmic opener “I Zimbra” to the suitably spooky closer, “Drugs.”
Most the album, in fact, projects an atmosphere of eeriness, extending the paranoid worldview that Byrne introduced with “Psycho Killer.”
“Air,” for example, addresses the state of the environment: “What is happening to my skin? Where is that protection that I needed?/Air can hurt you, too/Some people say not to worry about the air/Some people don’t know shit about the air.”
“Animals” doesn’t paint non-humans as man’s best friends: “They’re never there when you need them/They’re never there when you call them.”
And even a source of Byrne’s livelihood gets the creepy treatment on “Electric Guitar”: “This is a crime against the state/This is the verdict they reach/Never listen to electric guitar.”
The album’s dark overtones reach their apogee on the minor hit “Life During Wartime,” which seems to ring more true with each passing year: “Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock/We blended in with the crowd/We got computers, we’re tapping phone lines/I know that ain’t allowed.”
One seeming respite for the gloominess is “Heaven,” probably best known as the duet played by Byrne and Weymouth in Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense.” The relatively melodic tune turns out to tell the story of a bar where “nothing, nothing ever happens.”
In the world created by “Fear of Music,” the real Heaven just might be a place where nothing happens.