Speaking in Tongues proves that there’s nothing wrong with reaching out and embracing the masses.
Speaking in Tongues stands out as an oddity in Talking Heads catalog, both a post-Eno transitional album and the band’s first real taste of mainstream chart success. Not the raw funky rock of their first two albums, nor the rhythmic experiment of their Eno-produced work, this sees the Heads go slightly more pop than usual while still keeping things arty. The fruits of this labor would pay off, supplying the band with their highest charting album and the most successful single of their career.
The wobbly strut of album opener “Burning Down the House” starts out with a tense guitar riff and the faint echoes of percussion, immediately sidelined by a cautionary yelp from Byrne. “Watch out!” he strains before threatening, “I’m an ordinary guy/ Burning down the house!”
It’s quintessential Byrne, throwing his voice around the room like a boomerang, careening around tight corners while an expanded group (including Bernie Worrell, P-Funk’s ivory tinkling funkateer) lays it on with a thick coat of molasses.
Speaking in Tongues quickly settles into that steady groove and rarely deviates. “Making Flippy Floppy” follows with an infectious call and response between Byrne and delightfully woozy synths. As the song pulls into a mysteriously airy keyboard solo, you can feel the absent Eno spiritually guiding the group into more cosmic territories, though Byrne is quick to drag things back to earth with the prescient line: “I can’t believe it/ People are strange/ Our president is crazy!/ Did you hear what he said?” Indeed David, things were bad back then, but surely you must be feeling it even more nowadays?
And the beat goes on with “Girlfriend is Better,” featuring twinkling keyboards and rubbery percussion constantly on the verge of falling all over itself. “Slippery People” is a bit more sinister with a space age laser synth cutting through a minimalist mix of light keyboard squelches and Weymouth hesitantly patrolling the lower end of the spectrum. If it wasn’t obvious from the titles, Byrne is in fine lyrical form throughout, the former ending with the now signature line, “As we get older and stop making sense/ Stop making sense!”
Little did we know it at the time, but that phrase, which gave the Jonathan Demme concert film Stop Making Sense its name, would become inseparable from the band. Still frequently played in repertory theaters and dorm rooms alike, the film captures the entire band, and Byrne in particular, at their most theatrical and crowd pleasing.
As Byrne hops, skips and flails about in an irregularly large suit, wind catching and blowing his sleeves around like a flimsy pair of parachute pants, the rest of the band file in one song at a time, their ranks growing to militant levels. The film’s striking visuals are all grounded in simplicity and normalcy, but shot in the most stark and commanding of ways. Red light engulfs the band during Speaking in Tongues’s “Swamp,” a bluesy, Doors-esque romp, while Byrne purposely stomps in place, striking an elegantly cool pose.
With that in mind, a solid argument could be made against Speaking in Tongues’s production, as its live counterparts are frequently more expansive and freewheeling. However, there is a certain charm to the album’s light and uncluttered style, especially as it allows Weymouth to assert her dominance with reliably funky bass riffage. It’s no surprise that Weymouth is the star player here – her jams, improvised along with husband and Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club drummer Chris Frantz, act as the essential basics for much of Speaking in Tongues. Byrne and keyboardist Jerry Harrison would further sculpt the song to their liking in full band sessions.
If “Burning Down the House” is the bold intro, a slab of hot groove smashing into the charts, then “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” with its bright and childish whispers of flute-like synths and guitar swipes, is Speaking in Tongues’s sweet and enduring legacy. Covered by a diverse range of acts, from The String Cheese Incident to Arcade Fire (the latter featuring Byrne himself), “This Must Be the Place” presents an innocent and untroubled scenario. Byrne is practically demure, his usual vocal tics blunted into a melody so sweet that for once the man sounds… content?
“I’m just an animal looking for a home/ And share the same space for a minute or two/ And you love me till my heart stops/ Love me till I’m dead,” croons Byrne and god, doesn’t it make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? Maybe all that pop stuff isn’t so bad after all? Speaking in Tongues proves that there’s nothing wrong with reaching out and embracing the masses.