In 1978, after the release of their sophomore LP, More Songs About Buildings and Food, Talking Heads were at a crossroads. The lead (and only) single from that record, a cover of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River,” was a hit, reaching #26 on the Hot 100 and giving the group more recognition. A performance on American Bandstand only compounded their crossover potential, and it seemed a mainstream breakthrough was imminent.
Of course, the quartet had another sort of breakthrough in mind. After a scrapped New York session, they found themselves holed up in drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth’s loft, where they’d eventually call up Buildings and Food producer Brian Eno for input. Expanding on the disco rhythms that had hidden themselves throughout their last record, the group began experimenting more with synthesizers and electronic textures, juxtaposing David Byrne’s increasingly apocalyptic, isolated lyrics with hip-shaking instrumentation.
The sessions would eventually result in Fear Of Music, a paranoid, dystopian masterpiece that sees one of the greatest musical acts ever in the midst of metamorphosis.
The record kicks off with maybe the greatest musical bait-and-switch ever, in the form of “I Zimbra.” Nesting nonsensical, dadaist chants atop a wiry, insatiable web of polyrhythms, it’s an electric opening, a foray into African rhythms that signals the direction the group would eventually dive into with later records like 1980’s Remain In Light. While it’s an undoubted outlier on the record, it serves as a fantastic tone-setter, kicking off the proceedings in style.
One thing that the record never sacrifices is a sense of movement, fluid and absolutely electrifying. Jerry Harrison’s eerie synths are front and center on “Air,” which features these ghostly background vocals, singing the title phrase like they’re saying a curse. On “Cities,” the most danceable song here, Byrne sinks his teeth into a blistering groove, snarling and growling through a brilliantly nervy vocal performance.
It’s here on Fear Of Music that David Byrne truly comes into his own, both as a performer and a lyricist. On “Heaven,” he waxes poetic on the meaninglessness of a heaven “where nothing happens.” “Mind” seems like a desperate plea to be heard, from someone who has no one to talk to but themselves. Linking a love affair to a flimsy piece of paper, Byrne sounds terrifically preachy on “Paper,” singing over icy disco licks.
It all comes to a head on the dazzling centerpiece, “Life During Wartime.” A tour through an apocalyptic hellhole with “the sound of gunfire off in the distance,” the joyless nightmare landscape the song entails is vivid and terrifying. The warnings Byrne lists off (“this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco…”) only compound this nightmarish world, adorned by a menacing brass section that elevates the song to another level.
The song is just one of many highlights on Fear Of Music, a fearlessly chaotic classic that manages to move bodies even in Orwellian depths. Today, it sounds more important than ever.