A graceful way to bow out—some trumpets, but little fanfare.
Fans didn’t know it at the time, but Naked was the Talking Heads’ memento mori: by the time it actually came out in early 1988, the band had decided to call it quits. At the time, though, the break was meant as a “hiatus”—David Byrne recorded and released his first solo album, the eclectic Rei Momo, Tom Tom Club (bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz’s side project) were at work on their fourth album Dark Sneak Love Action and guitarist Jerry Harrison pursued his own solo work as well. In short, the writing was on the wall, but it wasn’t until 1991 that the world knew the Heads were through.
They were well past their peak by then. After the twin triumphs of Speaking in Tongues and the concert film Stop Making Sense, they released the rather conventional Little Creatures and True Stories, the soundtrack to David Byrne’s less-than-universally-beloved directorial debut.
This sounds like a recipe for disaster—you’d expect Naked to be a letdown, but it stands up remarkably well. That said, it’s not really a Talking Heads album as much as a David Byrne solo album featuring the rest of the band, as well as a large group of guests, including Johnny Marr of The Smiths (fresh from a break-up of his own), singer Kirsty MacColl (who was then married to the album’s producer, Steve Lillywhite), the prolific percussionist Manolo Badrena, jazz session players and many others, including African instrumentalists the band recorded with in Paris, where most of the album’s sessions took place.
The album’s formula seems to be that of letting Byrne loose over pre-recorded grooves and seeing what Talking Head numero uno can come up with. For the most part, the strategy is successful. The album’s “world” influences, mostly African and Latin, are not especially experimental, but one imagines they had some novelty at the time and, even now, they don’t sound particularly cloying; even the least interesting songs (“Mr. Jones,” “Ruby Dear,” “Big Daddy”) are innocuous. There’s little to love about “The Facts of Life,” whose quasi-goth sound is a bit plodding and doesn’t seem to suit the Heads particularly well.
The songs that work best are undeniably fun listens. It starts off strong with the funky opener, “Blind,” which doesn’t break new ground but features Byrne in confident vocal form, singing intriguing lyrics that seem to describe the demise of a dissident-like figure: “He was shot down in the night/ People ride by but his body’s still alive.” Even the rather cheesy “Totally Nude” is a totally entertaining paean to (literally) shedding civilization and engaging in some good ol’ fashioned naturism. The Jonathan Richman-like “(Nothing But) Flowers” features instantly recognizable Marr guitar and a clever set of lyrics that cheekily or satirically reject that “Nature knows best” attitude as the speaker bemoans the loss of highways, parking lots and other hallmarks of Western civilization: “I miss the honky tonks, Dairy Queens and 7-11s.”
The more interesting moments are those in which the band doesn’t feel the need to party and Byrne’s lyrics grow darker and more pessimistic, perhaps reflecting the Reagan years in which this music was recorded. “The Democratic Circus” is a sleek, subtly intense tune that could be read as an allegory of Americanization, with crescendos so gradual that you don’t really notice them until Byrne is screaming in your ears.
The seemingly autobiographical “Mommy Daddy You and I” and the character sketch “Bill” also reflect Byrne’s strange, outsider-like view of American society, as though from the perspective of an alien (Byrne was born in Scotland and lived there and in Canada before coming to America when he was around 9). The chorus to “Bill” is particularly haunting: “Angel of God/ Take me along/ Happy days/ Quiet life/ We are not alone….” It seems to compactly evoke the leitmotifs of Byrne’s songs: spirituality, travel, solitude, contemplation, optimism and much else.
Finally, “Cool Water,” unlike the aforementioned “The Facts of Life,” is a gothy song that works, a quasi-Biblical number with apocalyptic undertones and music of increasing intensity, not unlike a Nick Cave song. “The noise begins/ In the human battle stations/ And the big one’s coming in,” Byrne sings. This track is a chilling conclusion to what seems, at first, like a blithely fun album: “Work, work, work, work/ Work ‘til holes are filled/ Work, work, work, work/ Bags of bone and skin.”
By 1988, the Talking Heads were no longer cool, with David Byrne already edging toward a kind of elder statesman status, branching out toward the worlds of art, theater and film, embracing conventional, popular music, albeit from a more international angle. That said, Naked is still, in its own way, just as odd as their debut, 11 years prior, and in many ways quite emotionally direct for a songwriter as oblique as Byrne. Ultimately, it was a graceful way to bow out—some trumpets, but little fanfare.