Maybe Little Creatures wasn’t a deliberate attempt at mainstream popularity, but there’s little doubt that it’s one of Talking Heads’ most accessible albums.
“Though this is a modest, enchanting album,” wrote Rob Tannenbaum, in a contemporaneous Rolling Stone review of Talking Heads’ 1985 album Little Creatures, “those who equate creativity with complexity will undoubtedly dismiss it as old wave. But with the rest of the pop world still catching up to the brilliant Remain in Light, what could be more subversive than a clean and happy record?” Clearly Tannenbaum was trying to negotiate the potential contradiction between the perception of Talking Heads as an arty, quirky, boundary-pushing NYC, new wave phenomenon – firmly established by their trio of Brian-Eno-produced, songy-but-experimental albums – and the undeniable accessibility of their latest release, a contradiction he predicted would be a common “complaint.” It seems now, more than 30 years later, like Tannenbaum was determined to avoid giving Little Creatures a negative review by recasting the album’s pop appeal as just a different kind of edgy experimentation. In particular, it appears that he wanted to defend against the notion that Little Creatures commits the cardinal sin of legit rock “artists”: selling out and going mainstream.
Maybe Little Creatures wasn’t a deliberate attempt at mainstream popularity, but there’s little doubt that it’s one of Talking Heads’ most accessible albums. Quantitatively, it’s the biggest selling – over 2 million copies in the US – and, starting with the sunshine and backbeat sound of “And She Was,” it’s pop from the get-go. Sure, barely three minutes later “Give Me Back My Name” inches back towards the darker days of Fear of Music, but it’s the only shady spot on an album bright with the simplicity of verse/chorus pop and comparatively relatable lyrics that feature romance and domesticity instead of David Byrne’s usual paranoia and abstraction.
The album’s (almost) title track is “Creatures of Love.” Instrumentally, there’s real country/western twang in the arrangement, and not just in the distilled Americana of the pedal steel guitar; Chris Frantz plays a drumbeat that would sound at home in just about any Nashville recording session, for the time being setting aside the African rhythms of “I Zimbra” and Remain in Light as well as the Tom Tom Club funk of Speaking in Tongues. Lyrically, Byrne dials back his animus towards suburban life in middle America, on display in songs like “The Big Country” (from More Songs About Buildings and Food). There’s still an impression of his being an alien life form offering casual observations on humanity – at one point explicitly wondering aloud, “Am I one of those human beings?” – but those observations are tender, maybe even hopeful, a word you’d have a hard time applying to Talking Heads songs on albums previous, from “Psycho Killer” to “Making Flippy Floppy.”
“Creatures of Love” is a song about making babies – “I’ve seen sex and I think it’s all right/ It makes those little creatures come to life” – in which the refrain “We are creatures of love” has a double meaning: human beings are products of sex (or, love, if you like) who at the same time require love and sex to stay alive. Byrne’s lyrics are tinted with childlike wonder, underlined by the song’s upbeat mood and yet undermined (ever so slightly) by the words “From the sleep of reason/ A life is born.” Goya’s 18th Century etching “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” suggests that Byrne’s little creatures might be little monsters, a term of (mostly) endearment that’s applied to infants from time to time. The song broadcasts its ambiguity in other ways, ultimately disregarding fearful apprehension with hopefulness by proxy: “It’s okay to be afraid/ When the blue sparks hit your brain/ We can love one another/ I’ve been told that it’s okay.”
Deliberation over love and being in the family way show up elsewhere on the album. While not love songs, per se, tracks like “The Lady Don’t Mind” and “Perfect World” suggest infatuation, if not a kind of romance. And “Stay Up Late” is another song about babies. In this case, an endearingly manic Byrne calls someone else’s newly minted offspring a “plaything” – “Cute, cute/ Little baby/ Little pee-pee/ Little toes” – and pleads with its mother to “Please let me hold him/ I wanna make him stay up all night.” The song itself goes around and around, the changes falling then rising then falling again in between an oompah chorus and a breakbeat-friendly bridge – a few more rays of sparkly light.
The simplicity of “Stay Up Late” is typical for Little Creatures. The album’s next song, “Walk It Down,” is more complicated, but it’s not complex. There’s an extended middle section featuring a lyrical bridge and an instrumental interlude that embellishes what is otherwise a straightforward verse/chorus affair. And the final track, “Road to Nowhere,” begins with an a cappella, gospel-influenced intro before launching into the bouncy, chugging stride of the song itself. In contrast to these songs is “Television Man,” the album’s longest but also its most repetitive and least interesting song.
Lyrically, it’s another about-face for Byrne. Songs like “Found a Job” (from More Songs About Buildings and Food) and “Burning Down the House” (from Speaking in Tongues) express disdain for TV and the passivity associated with it. But Byrne’s “Television Man” is “watching everything.” In defense of the boob tube he sings, “People like to put the television down/ But we are just good friends,” and claims, with conviction, “Television man made me who I am.” Not quite a ringing endorsement, but it’s one of several moments on Little Creatures that show a willingness to re-examine and to accommodate facets of life that Byrne and his Talking Heads compatriots had set themselves in opposition to. It suggests that, though Little Creatures may not be the subversive album Rob Tannenbaum suggested it was in 1985, it is evidence of Talking Heads’ willingness to try things outside of their downtown New York art rock comfort zone, even mainstream things.