When recording sessions began in earnest for the fourth Talking Heads’ album, Remain in Light, it was July of 1980 and the band had retuned to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, where they’d recorded their second album More Songs About Buildings and Food barely two years earlier. They’d released three moderately successful albums in less than three years, the last two of which had been produced by studio savant Brian Eno. The odd, sparse angularity of their debut, Talking Heads: 77, had with Eno’s help progressed into the darkly comic and beat-driven sounds on Fear of Music.
Behind the scenes, the husband-and-wife duo of drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth had talked about leaving the group. The seeds had already been planted for their side project, Tom Tom Club, and Weymouth in particular had become increasingly uncomfortable with the level of control wielded over Talking Heads by its lead singer and primary songwriter, David Byrne. Meanwhile, Byrne had been collaborating with Eno on the album that would later become My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. And Jerry Harrison, the band’s guitarist, had been producing an album for Nona Hendryx, a former member of the soul trio Labelle.
Frantz and Weymouth had already started recording some demos, instrumental jam sessions inspired in part by the opening track on Fear of Music, “I Zimbra.” Most everyone then involved in Talking Heads, including their two-time producer, was feeling apprehensive about the prospect of recording a new album, but these demos brought renewed enthusiasm. Looking back, there are obvious similarities between “I Zimbra” and the music that would come to be Remain in Light. The vaguely African rhythms in “I Zimbra” and its nonsensical lyrics – based on a Dadaist poem by Hugo Ball – do resemble the funky grooves and not-quite-stream of consciousness word assemblage on Remain in Light.
But far more significant than those superficial similarities was the fact that “I Zimbra” was the first Talking Heads song to come from a jam, a more creatively equitable and collaborative process the group returned to in full force for this new album. Instead of writing and rehearsing songs that they could then perform and record in the studio, the band would improvise together and record sections from those jams, or even isolated parts, that could then be looped and layered to start building finished tracks. Since the very beginning of their collaboration, Brian Eno and the members of Talking Heads shared a love for the music of Fela Kuti—Eno had played Fela’s album Afrodisiac for Byrne when they first met—and that dense, polyrhythmic Nigerian groove, blended with electronic and more conventional rock elements, inspired their improvisations and helped to form the aesthetic foundation for the music on Remain in Light.
While it’s worth noting the things that “I Zimbra” and Remain in Light have in common, it’s even more interesting to look at the things they don’t. While not the most traditional of songs, “I Zimbra” does have individual sections—intro, verse, chorus, bridge, solo—that function more or less in the same way they would in a more conventional setting. In contrast, the songs on Remain in Light are in that sense barely songs at all. Each one of the eight tracks on the album is built on a single loop—in many cases a single chord—that repeats from sudden start to fade-out finish.
Still, even the most static of songs on Remain in Light manages to approximate change. In most cases, the feeling of a track’s having individual sections is accomplished in part by adding and subtracting instrumental parts or by the stellar instrumental contributions of guitarist Adrian Belew or trumpet player Jon Hassell. It’s achieved even more successfully by what happens with the vocal parts. What would otherwise be instrumentals become songs with the addition of “verse” and “chorus,” which are distinguished one from the other essentially by the opposition of words that change with words that repeat. The singing also helps to create the illusion of harmonic movement, especially in the album’s first three tracks, by inflection—melodies that go up signal tension; melodies that go down, resolution. (Think of the repeated but alternating lines, up then down, in the chorus of “Crosseyed and Painless”—“I’m still waiting/ I’m still waiting.”)
It’s probably no coincidence that the song on the album that’s now one of Talking Heads’ most widely recognized songs—despite failing to chart in the US at the time of its release—is the one that has the clearest and most conventional verse/chorus structure. (Even so, like all the other songs on Remain in Light, “Once in a Lifetime” never departs from the rhythm and tonality of the loop that forms the basis of the track. It just adds more parts that recontextualize and nearly drown that loop out.) It’s also the song with the most straightforward and relatable lyrics, portraying the vicissitudes of human fortune—“You may find yourself…” alternately, in “…A shotgun shack/ …In another part of the world” or in “…A beautiful house/ With a beautiful wife”—as merely accidental, the outcome of human passivity and accumulated time—“How did I get here?/ Letting the days go by….”
Elsewhere on the album the lyrics avoid more conventional narratives or easy interpretations. (With the exceptions of “Seen and Not Seen,” a bit of magical realism actually narrated by Byrne, much like the Velvet Underground song “The Gift,” and “Listening Wind,” a story of American foreign policy in the Middle East told during the time of the Cold War.) The lyrics to songs like “Born Under Punches,” “The Great Curve” or “The Overload” don’t add up to anything in particular but instead evoke a more generalized mood, operating in isolated phrases or strings of words, individual streams of consciousness that may resonate deeply in isolated moments but don’t necessarily have an overarching meaning.
This is nicely encapsulated by a lyric in the song “Crosseyed and Painless,” in which a veritable chorus of David Byrnes sing, “The feeling returns/ Whenever we close our eyes/ Lifting my head/ Looking around inside.” It’s as if Byrne is glancing around the contents of his scattered mind and casually taking an inventory of what he finds there, some of which may be relevant to his listeners, some of which may make no sense to them at all. This moment-to-moment significance is facilitated by the music itself, which through repetition and harmonic stasis sounds like it’s perpetually stuck within a single moment that’s repeating into infinity.
In comparison to Talking Heads’ other albums, Remain in Light is decidedly atypical. It has far more in common, for instance, with the dark and cerebral loop-based, sample-heavy Eno/Byrne collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts than it does with anything the band recorded before or after. Still, Remain in Light is seen by many as the band’s masterpiece, and it’s often referred to as a clear culmination of what Talking Heads had accomplished up to that point. Nonetheless, despite the fact it would be a touchstone and a source of inspiration for many other bands for years to come, for Talking Heads, Remain in Light was a culmination but also a dead end. After a remarkably fruitful start, in which they recorded and released four classic albums in less than four years, Byrne, Frantz, Harrison and Weymouth parted ways with Brian Eno, the producer who had helped to shape their early success. They wouldn’t record a new album for another three years.