Fear of Music contains untapped potential for bands looking for inspiration today—dance music for dark times.
Along with other groups of their milieu, Talking Heads created art you could dance to and made it viable to play popular music that combined New York cool—experimental poetry and conceptual art—with rhythms borrowed from other musical traditions. But they weren’t just purveyors of dance music; they were also, in their own abstruse way, a band that very much commented on its own time.
After the herky-jerky CBGB-meets-RISD splash of Talking Heads: 77 and the Devo-ish aerobics of their follow-up More Songs About Buildings and Food, the first with Eno at the helm, they released the dark and complicated Fear of Music in 1979. Though the world would wait another year for their definitive Remain in Light, Fear of Music is a unique marriage of urban paranoia and international grooves—“fear local, dance global” could be its motto.
The first thing to notice is the brevity of most of the song titles, pointing to a kind of post-punk abstraction in the album (think of the song titles on PiL’s Metal Box, released the same year). The opener, “I Zimbra,” is a kind of précis of the as-yet unrealized Remain in Light, with its mash-up of African song and Dada poetry, aided by a bit of Fripp guitar to boot. Though its chants sound exultant, the song sets up the anxious energy of the whole album. Indeed, the dominant themes of the album’s lyrics are skepticism and disillusionment, despite the overall buoyancy of the music.
After the overture, the album begins with a compelling trio, from the pleading “Mind” (“I need something to change your mind”) to “Paper,” a frenetic chronicle of a soured union (“Had a love affair but it was only paper”) and “Cities,” sung by a wandering paranoiac as he perambulates urban landscapes (“Find a city, find myself a city to live in”).
“Life During Wartime,” by far the biggest hit of the album, is so catchy and danceable that it’s easy to miss its grimness—the song is as convincing a chronicle of societal collapse as it is an account of a personal and artistic crisis. The druggy, dissonant “Memories Can’t Wait” follows, reminiscent of Berlin-era Bowie, with Byrne’s vocals at their most extreme—I confess I’d forgotten just how good this song is—followed by the spooky and affecting “Air” (“Air can hurt you, too”) and the classic “Heaven,” which serves as a window into Byrne’s later, “straighter” songwriting. “Animals” is the only stain on the album, as far as I can tell—it begins in rather ordinary fashion, sounding like the Talking Heads covering themselves, and it gets downright silly by the end. “Electric Guitar” is an improvement; though it, too, sounds a bit dated, it is a taut piece of signature Byrne mutters and yelps, and presages the many deaths that the instrument and the genre it emblematizes would suffer in coming decades.
The fantastic concluding track, “Drugs,” makes explicit what the album up to that point has mostly only hinted at, the role of substances in the paranoid atmosphere of the time. The pins-and-needles feel of the music serves as the musical equivalent of pupils dilating and Byrne sounds like he’s wandering through a party muttering to himself—“I’m charged up…Don’t put me down/ Don’t feel like talking…Don’t mess around/ I feel mean…I feel OK.”
Fear of Music is in some ways the most important Talking Heads album. It sees them shed, in part, the musical persona that made them famous and some of the less original elements of their first two albums to craft a work that feels like a dark, post-punk classic that remains all their own. It also points to the two halves of Remain in Light, both its African-inspired sound and the more obviously Eno-inspired work.
In retrospect, seeing how dark the band could be makes one wonder whether their successors in the indie-rock world only picked up on the angular rhythms and the disarming melodicism of Byrne’s writing, leaving aside an equally important dimension of their music, their biting and cynical social commentary. Whatever the answer, it is clear that Fear of Music not only holds up, but also still contains untapped potential for bands looking for inspiration today—dance music for dark times.