On More Songs About Buildings and Food Byrne was content to simply poke and prod at the norms of society.
In January 1978, the young Talking Heads appeared on an episode of “The Old Grey Whistle Test” performing “Don’t Worry About the Government” and “Psycho Killer,” from its debut album. Fitted in a bright yellow polo shirt–more preppy Easter brunch than art school chic–singer and mastermind David Byrne was surprisingly static, guitar strapped firmly to his chest. In a way, the more subdued form was fitting; his relatively calm and lanky figure contrasted his darting eyes and vocal leaps and squiggles. He looked like he was ready to explode—out of fear, dread, excitement, anticipation. He stared into the camera, a fleeting glimpse of desperation and worry glimmering in his eyes before returning to standard formation, foot tapping at an increasingly aggressive rate. Yes, don’t worry indeed.
A few months later, More Songs About Buildings and Food was released to a quickly warming yet still hesitant public. Featuring its first song to chart in the top 40, a cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” and an album title as dry as stale crackers, the band’s nervous self-awareness was on full display throughout the album’s anxious lyrics and taut rhythms. The skittish funk of Byrne’s songwriting, along with a dose of jerky guitar, was met with the perfect foil in the form of Weymouth, Harrison and Frantz, their ever improving sense of groove and pacing coming into play on heated-up tracks like the galloping rush of opener, “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” and “I’m Not in Love.”
Importantly, the album was the first in a long line of Byrne collaborations with producer Brian Eno, whose influence is noticeable from the get go: the grooves are tighter and the songwriting is more adventurous, exuding a confident aura that the band’s debut only hinted at. “Even though we had confidence in ourselves, Eno knows how to make people do things they would think impossible,” explained Weymouth in a 1979 interview for Creem. “He’s very disciplined… he turned us from complete novices to naturals in the studio.”
Eno met the band at a 1977 show in London, and they all quickly bonded over a shared love of Fela Kuti and his polyrhythms, an appropriate fit for the band’s punkish flirtations with dance. “The first time I ever met Talking Heads, I played them a record by Fela Kuti, [as] I thought that was just the most exciting music going on at the time,” Eno would later tell NPR. While Kuti’s influence over both Eno and the band would become more apparent in later albums, especially the expansive groove of Remain in Light, More Songs About Buildings and Food solidified the foundation on which the group and producer would build.
As always, Byrne’s twitchy yelp was the main attraction. Focused and precise, Byrne placed just the right amount of emphasis on keywords, assisting in the frantic transmission of his skittish lyrics–the everyday minutiae of life filtered through his warped art student-turned-imminent rock icon perspective. “I’m painting/ I’m painting again!” he excitedly declares on “Artists Only” before haphazardly blurting out, “Pretty soon now, I will be bitter!/ Pretty soon now, will be a quitter!/ I don’t have to prove that I am creative!”
Meanwhile, the rushed verses of “Found A Job” are matched by a surprisingly aggressive chorus opening, “Judy’s in the bedroom/ Creating situations!” Intimidating words until you understand the context–those situations are for her DIY TV show. After all, Byrne’s lyrics are only vaguely threatening: the world sneaks up on you from time to time, so look out!
Whereas Green’s original “Take Me to the River” was smooth and relatively controlled, his voice slowly building up to a pained scream with yearning strings and horns following suit, Byrne take was less predictable. A heavy drum beat cautiously gives way to Byrne’s apprehensive vocals, a more dejected take compared to the reverend’s soulful uplift: Green sounded more than ready to hand over his money and cigarettes, Byrne remained hesitant and questioning.
It all culminates in Byrne’s kiss-off to Middle America, “The Big Country.” “I wouldn’t do the things the way those people do/ I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.” These brutally honest lyrics contrast with relaxed slide guitars and downbeat vocal delivery. We’re treated to a Talking Heads we would rarely see in the coming years: exhausted, foregoing tight moves and quick thoughts in favor of a world-weary sigh. Byrne’s inquisitive persona would jettison the band to arena-filling stardom, but on More Songs About Buildings and Food he was content to simply poke and prod at the norms of society. After all, you have to start small before taking on the big questions.