Portrait of Ina Claire by Carl Van Vechten, 1932
I'm not sure if it was a coordinated conspiracy or a coincidence, but this was the year that people gave me '80s music for Christmas. It turned out to be a cool thing because I'm getting a sense of real time and place as I listen to and familiarize myself with a bunch of albums that were released within a few years of each other. The Talking Head's Remain in Light has one of the quintessentially '80s singles in "Once in a Lifetime", but it's a unique creature, too. In the fine tradition of "It's New to Me", I will present my observations on the album without checking to verify that I am just saying exactly what people have been saying about the record for thirty years.
To me, Remain in Light is the expanding universe - it begins with an explosion of incredible density, heat, and velocity that gradually expands, slows, and cools, and it ends in frigid, lifeless stasis. Given that the album is a Brian Eno production, the last and most ambitious of the three that he did for the Talking Heads, this could be intentional, and it makes for an interesting listen. Remain in Light starts with its three fastest and most complex songs - in the original vinyl release, these three songs made up the entire A Side, and together they are a monolithic barrage of poly-rhythms and layered sounds that has, so far at least, been hard for me to sort out. The opening song, "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)", leaves the biggest impression, but it becomes harder to concentrate on the continued cacophony, and I find myself getting disoriented in the stampede of the two songs that follow, "Crosseyed and Painless" and "The Great Curve". During the songs' long instrumental stretches, a little breathing room begins to open up, but the real relief doesn't come until the album's fourth song.
That song, "Once in a Lifetime", is the obvious center and balancing point of the record, finding the sweet spot between the clutter of Remain in Light's first side and the sparser, moodier material that ends the album. The propulsive energy of the album's first act is still there, but the hooks are more clearly defined and the melody becomes the focus for the first time on the album - this isn't particularly surprising, as the album is largely unconcerned with chord progressions. I've always liked "Once in a Lifetime" as a song, but it takes on a new flavor in the context of Remain in Light's big bang, as does the other song in the album's balanced middle, "Houses in Motion" (unsurprisingly, this was the album's other single).
The album's final section is composed of three slower songs, the highlight of which is the sparse "Listening Wind" - I may not be the ideal Talking Heads fan, as I vastly prefer this kind of song to the band's more ambitious rhythm-heavy compositions, but the sighing guitar lines (by Adrian Belew, I think) are a great counterpoint to Byrne's sad, swaying chorus melody. Fittingly, this song is followed by an even sparser and colder-sounding finale, "The Overload", a song famously patterned after Joy Division, a band that none of the Talking Heads had actually heard at the time. Allegedly. Byrne nails the Ian Curtis vocal so perfectly, that I think the band may be overstating their unfamiliarity with Joy Division's work. This song is a little too cold for me, just as the album's first third is a little too hot, but I enjoy Remain in Light's warm gooey middle quite a bit, and listening to the whole album is a pleasantly odd experience, where each song is a little slower and less dense than the one that preceded it.
"Listening Wind" by the Talking Heads