The Strange, Tense Power of Talking Heads' 'Fear of Music'

Jonathan Lethem's new book celebrates the band's transitional, apocalyptic 1979 album.

david byrne 1997 reuters lethem.jpg
Former Talking Heads singer David Byrne performs in 1997. Reuters
What's new in arts and entertainment. See full coverage

When I was a high school freshman, in 1991, my struggling-artist uncle gave me the first four Talking Heads albums on vinyl, mumbling "You might like 'em."

If only he knew. Night after night I commandeered my parents' turntable to immerse myself in the band's first two albums, Talking Heads: 77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food. The attitude the band conveyed on these works—wry, intellectual, urban—provided a sharp contrast to the bland suburban environment it seemed some mistake of fate had landed me. Talking Heads' fourth album, Remain in Light, perplexed me, with its weird squalls of keyboards married to conga drums and cryptic lyrics delivered in what couldn't often be called singing—chanting, yes, but also, in some songs, moaning, yelling, preaching, and most troublingly, speaking in a monotone whose flatness trembled with inflection. It would take me till college to thread my way through that album's fantastically deep soundscape.

Somehow Fear of Music, Talking Heads' third studio album, got lost in the shuffle. While I loved "Life During Wartime" and "I Zimbra," most of its songs didn't rank with the personal, neurotic anthems of the first two releases, nor were they as alien yet undeniably grand as Remain in Light. In the history of the band's development, Fear of Music presented a transitional work, and as such, I believed, a minor one.

Not so for Jonathan Lethem, who, at the age of 15, encountered Fear of Music upon its release in 1979 and fell in—well, not love. That word comes up short in describing Lethem's relationship to the record. As he put it in his 2005 essay, "The Beards," " identification was so complete that I might have wished to wear the album Fear of Music in place of my head so as to be more clearly seen by those around me." He's further unpacked his interest in a book entitled Fear of Music, the latest in Continuum's 33 1/3 series of music scholarship. In it, he doesn't rescue the album from its status as transitional. Rather, he celebrates that status, postulating that the tensions at play within the work—the way in which Fear of Music marks a shift from one Talking Heads sound to another—make it great.

In the early '70s, singer and guitarist David Byrne and percussionist Chris Frantz began making loud, caustic music as art students at Rhode Island School of Design. Byrne dropped out and moved to New York City, and Frantz later joined him. Looking for a raw, unformed bass player, they persuaded Frantz's then girlfriend and later wife, Tina Weymouth, to pick up the instrument. Two days before their first gig, the trio took the name Talking Heads, a term they found used in TV Guide to describe a shoulders-up camera shot of a person speaking. Talking Heads added Jerry Harrison, one of the original members of Jonathan Richman's band The Modern Lovers, to play keyboard and additional guitar right before recording their debut album.

When Fear of Music was released, the group was on the verge of outgrowing local New York success and moving toward the arena-filling, ten piece musical funkanauts they would be circa 1984's concert doc Stop Making Sense. The success of their cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" and appearances on Saturday Night Live and American Bandstand had gained the group a wider audience, yet made them wary of selling out. This gave rise to a set of contradictions that would manifest even on Fear of Music's jacket: all black with raised worm-like shapes reminiscent of tire tread or, in Lethem's view, a steel door that evokes both a "chilly authority" and "desire to be stroked."

After a short preamble in which he makes clear that his will be a heavily invested interpretation, bringing with it his 15-year-old self's "awe" of Talking Heads and Fear of Music, Lethem puts the album on the turntable and lets it play, examining each track in turn. Unlike his previous venture into critical scholarship—a minute-by-minute analysis of John Carpenter's movie They Live—he brings few outside sources to bear on the material at hand. Instead, he draws the reader beside him as he examines the LP's tracks under a magnifying glass and then hangs them within relation to one another, occasionally pulling back to regard each song against the Heads' oeuvre.

He breaks away from this termite-work to shine various lights—Is Fear of Music a New York album? A science-fiction album? A paranoid album?—seeing what kind of shadows the questions make. Never does he posit that his reading defines how one should hear the album, or, even more foolishly, that this is how the album was intended to be heard. Rather, he wonders what is gained or lost by examining the album within each frame. Amid all of this, Lethem murmurs theories about how to understand a work of art and drops personal revelations about the way culture shaped him during adolescence, but these never occupy him long enough to drown out the music.

This slow approach yields big, as it reveals a record composed not of disparate songs, like, say, a short-story collection, but a "concept album" in the most abstract yet perhaps truest sense. Fear of Music tells no narrative, but weaves together its bleak motifs in such a way that a resonance chamber forms, the pop music equivalent of the postmodern, fractured books of Italo Calvino. Parts that at first seem only distantly related start to feel of a piece the further one goes and the closer one looks. The majority of the song titles act as a table of contents of sort—"Mind," "Paper," "Cities," "Air," "Heaven," "Animals," "Electric Guitar," "Drugs"—all riffing on themes of restlessness, dissolution, and instability. Crackpots, conspiracy theorists, criminals, and druggies emerge as characters, and a bleak landscape forms. Make no mistakes, it's the apocalypse.

Lethem pays particular attention to David Byrne's use of pronouns, finding the songwriter lets them slip not to imply, as in most rock music, informality or off-the-cuffness, but to disturb and unsettle. In "Mind," for example, with its chorus of "I need something to change your mind," Lethem wonders if the I and you of the song are not in fact the same: whether there's an edge of solipsistic madness to the enterprise, with the listener overhearing a nutter trying to convince himself of something—what, we're never sure. In "Life During Wartime," Byrne flips the first-person from the singular to plural: "We dress like students / We dress like housewives," he sings, masking his personality in a way that would play out more fully on Remain in Light, where the lyrics rarely reveal a narrative voice, let alone one that could be mistaken for "David Byrne."

This shift in voice, Lethem suggests, coincides with Byrne struggling to define himself as an artist and rock star:

David Byrne didn't want to become the nerd Mick Jagger. For it was Jagger's fate to be seen as somehow both apart from, and utterly incomplete without, his musical collaborators, even as the potential meaning of the Rolling Stones' music became more and more a product and symptom of Jagger's projected persona, circumscribed by its established interests and attitudes.

Byrne responded by taking himself out of the limelight, erasing the neurotic "I" of his early work, and challenging the very concept of the band Talking Heads by introducing additional players, essentially disempowering each of the four members by turning them into "founding members," just one of many musicians that make up a revolving line-up of Talking Heads. Lethem doesn't deny that the enlarged band of Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues gained depths of sonic expression. But he laments what they lost, and so proposes that Fear of Music may in fact be the last Talking Heads album, meaning it's the final record where the four members worked cooperatively as a quartet.

Ever self-conscious, Lethem admits the faultiness of this proposition up front, with two words: Brian Eno. Eno produced the band's previous album, 1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food, and worked even more closely with them on Fear of Music. The Trojan Horse, Lethem calls him, because though purportedly a producer perched behind the audio controls, Eno in fact acted as something of a muse or musical guru, introducing the band to a new approach to constructing songs and thinking about songcraft in general. Eno and Byrne cobbled together the album closer "Drugs" in the manner of Dadaists playing Exquisite Corpse, each working on parts in isolation from the other. It was Eno who suggested the table-of-contents approach as a means of breaking Byrne's writer's block, as well as using a poem by Hugo Ball, a Dadaist poet (see a theme?), for the nonsensical combination of phonemes that comprise the lyrics of "I Zimbra." (A sample line goes "Gadji beri bimba glandridi.")

Eno, perhaps better known today for producing U2 and Coldplay and coining the term "ambient music," began his solo career making records rife with catchy riffs and lyrics as a member of Roxy Music. But in the late '70s he largely abandoned singing because of how words automatically became the song's foreground, dictating the song's meaning. He was more interested in an emotive, intuition-based approach to music, and under his influence, so were Talking Heads. Or at least Byrne, who increasingly defined the scope of Talking Heads projects. Thus goes another of the theories at play in Lethem's book:

... the original band's integrity was partly conquered by another story. This went something like: a prodigy, a genius, [David Byrne] outgrew, or anyway became impatient with, a context and a format—"rock band" and "pop song"—and at the same time, or as a result, began to separate himself from a group of friends, his bandmates [Talking Heads]. At the same time, the genius became infatuated with another genius [Brian Eno], he who happened to be famously an outgrower too, specifically of the context and format of "rock band" and "pop song."

Byrne claimed sole credit as Fear of Music's songwriter, despite the band having jammed the songs into being. Though the group aimed for a more democratic form of composition for 1980's Remain in Light, the votes of Byrne and Eno—who sometimes acted as a fifth band member, playing, singing, and even contributing lyrics—carried more weight. The two wanted only their names listed as songwriters, lumping Frantz, Harrison, and Weymouth together as "Talking Heads." (The three convinced them otherwise, and in the end everyone's name appears alphabetical, which still puts Byrne and Eno first.)

The tour to promote their Eno-less 1983 funk-rock hybrid Speaking in Tongues, documented in Stop Making Sense, would be Talking Heads' last. Byrne devised the show's tight choreography, with each band member arriving on stage one song at a time, and stark visual look, including his now (in)famous "Big Suit." Byrne admits he became "dictatorial," throwing fits—and microphones—when performances didn't go as planned. By the time the group disbanded in 1991, three years after the release of their final album, the inconsistent and somewhat forced-sounding Naked, Weymouth and Frantz were no longer on speaking terms with Byrne.

Watching Talking Heads' performance at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 is like seeing a zombie cover band. The members run through the motions, but stiffly, with no life, and—aside from Franz, beaming behind the drum kit—no joy. Lethem establishes early on that any discussion of Fear of Music must at least glance at this fate, as it runs parallel to the album's themes: "Endtimes. Self-dissolution and disassociation. Collective apprehension and distrust. Stress."

When it comes to telling stories and weaving theories out of cultural artifacts like rock albums, Lethem is no novice. The essays in Lethem's 2005 collection The Disappointment Artist form, collage-like, a memoir from analyzing what Lethem's consumption, understanding, accepting or rejecting of various artworks both high and low reveals about him as an artist, intellect, and person. Though best known as a novelist—most recently of 2009's Chronic City—Lethem has been particularly active as an essayist in the past decade, and the autobiographical slant he brings to his critical work feels particularly relevant in a time when people wear their interests like badges on their Facebook page. Not so different, in a way, from replacing your head with an album cover.

His achievement in Fear of Music is to let his personal passion for the album inform his thoughts on it with a vital urgency, without ever allowing those feelings to run rampant and obscure the work at hand. His prose feels looser than in many of his previous scholarly outings, collected in his 2011 book of essays The Ecstasy of Influence, as if the album's beat had him tapping his toe while typing out sentences. At times, tics of Talking Heads lyrics show up in his constructions, as if that boy in his room couldn't resist cracking in-jokes for us fellow fans to get. And make no doubt, this is a book written for fans, people who find it compelling to read about the various versions of the song "Drugs," or want to know at what point in the track the sounds of birdsong fade from the mix. But it's also a powerful piece of scholarship on a band that deserves, and whose work holds up to, close examination of the serious kind Lethem does here.

Because no matter what you think of Talking Heads' weaker, later albums as opposed to its early ones, or the solo work of any of its members, these people made music that captured a spirit both of its time and universal enough to speak, some 15 years later, to a boy like me, living about as displaced from New York in the late '70s as one could imagine. Lethem's book puts that work in context, to some extent. But more importantly, he revels in Fear of Music's strain, the way it encompasses punk and disco, aggression and passivity, paranoia and resolve, gleefully dancing its way off the brink. This ain't no party, indeed.