Mar 2006

Talking Heads: Remain In Light

Darwin be damned! This is why we evolved ears. No “adapting to our environment” / “survival of the versatile” bullshit. The surround mix of Remain In Light on 5.1 speakers and big beefy bass acted as a ‘Strange Attractor’… a retroactive enchantment cast upon all of human history… shaping biology and culture backwards through the millennia – coaxing eardrums from the depths of our DNA – in order that this experience may exist.

By which I mean, this is a good album.

Remain In Light was the first album I ever bought. It’s still, to my ears, one of the finest albums ever recorded. Which is a lovely stroke of luck. My first single was Ray Parker Junior’s Ghostbusters.

Remain in Light

Aaaanyways, Remain In Light was first released in 1980 and for me is the band’s finest achievement. Which is not to say they went downhill after they stopped working with Brian Eno, merely a different direction. Indeed, as 1981’s My Life In The Bush of Ghosts demonstrated, the direction being taken by Eno and David Byrne had its logical extension in something that wasn’t a Talking Heads record. And although the close collaboration between Eno and Byrne (to the point where Eno is co-writer of the album, and is an instrumentalist or vocalist on pretty much every track) led to friction within the band, Remain In Light is still very much a Talking Heads record… the natural next step after the previous year’s Fear of Music.

But why am I reviewing it now? It was released in 1980, and I bought it in 1986. Is there anything beyond it being “a good album” to justify this entry?

Digitally Remastered and Remixed in 5.1 Surround Sound

Really? And that’s good then is it?

Oh yes. Dear Lord yes. I’ve often thought to myself when listening to The White Album, or Astral Weeks, or Horses or Remain In Light… “wouldn’t it be amazing to hear this again for the first time?” And now, thanks to the wonders of modern sound mixing technology, I damn near can.

Remain In Light, with the entire Talking Heads back catalogue, has been re-released. Now, I’m often sceptical about re-releases (Bowie, for instance, is on the verge of taking the piss) but there’s no doubt that the sound reproduction on early CDs was often very shoddy, and remastering using the latest technology can overcome that. Plus, when coupled with a complete remix by a member of the band (i.e. someone who was present at the original recordings and has an idea of the sound they were trying to achieve), the process can radically improve an album, lifting individual instruments out of a muddy wall of sound and giving them the clarity and definition they had during actual recording.

As with the other albums, Remain In Light now consists of two discs… a CD and a DVD. The CD contains the digitally remastered version, plus a handful of unreleased tracks / outtakes. The DVD contains the original album, digitally remastered and remixed in 5.1 surround sound, plus a handful of previously unreleased performance videos. All in all it’s fair to say they’ve tried to offer enough additional material to justify buying the albums a third time (if, like me, you started buying music in the era of vinyl and cassette).

Certainly I’m a big enough (or foolish enough) fan to buy the re-issues on the strength of the remastering alone, but even for casual fans the audio quality is noticeably and significantly better and the bonus material is excellent. The four unfinished outtakes on Remain In Light‘s CD do fall a little short of “new songs”. But close to twenty minutes of new music from some truly historic recording sessions isn’t to be sniffed at… from the super-tight Fela’s Riff; the intensity of which leaves no space for vocals; to the Eno dominated Unison and the sublime Right Start which – judging by the presence of that bassline – was the seed that grew into Once In A Lifetime.

Hardcore fans of the band will be fascinated by what amounts to a glimpse of the creative process in action. Others will just dig the grooves.

It’s difficult to put into the words the difference in sound quality. Words like “richer” and “warmer” convey a sense of the change, but don’t really capture it. Everything is clearer – with entire new lyrics emerging from beneath layers of instrumentation – yet nothing is out of place. The songs don’t fragment into mere collections of channels, but hold their cohesion despite being opened up so radically. It’s a testament to the talent of Andy Zax; producer on the re-issue project; that this is the case.

Hearing something like The Overload in 5.1 surround sound is an unspeakably sublime musical experience. I was sceptical that a technology originally developed to allow positional sound for Hollywood action blockbusters would genuinely add anything to an album or piece of music. But add it does. If I were to say something like, “it allows you to feel like you’re inside the music”, I’d just sound like a brochure for 5.1 technology. You simply have to hear it for yourself… assuming you have the appropriate speaker setup.

But what about the songs?

Even though the reason for this review is the remastering, remixing and rerelease, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to say something about the album itself. Just what makes this one of the finest albums ever recorded?

Remain In Light marks the end of Talking Heads transition from spikey New York art punks into the most intelligent and eclectic band of their era; drawing influences from Africa and South America as well as from closer to home; mixing rhythms from around the world with soul, jazz, rock, pop, funk and country… and adding a generous dash of European motorische / krautrock to the mix.

It’s remarkable that such a dark and brooding wash of electronics as the album’s final track The Overload could exist without incongruity on an album that also contains the sheer funky exuberance of The Great Curve with its glorious refrain… “The world moves on a woman’s hips / the world moves and it swivels and bops / the world moves on a woman’s hips / the world moves and it bounces and hops”. The Overload is like Joy Division at their very best, while The Great Curve is like… well, like nothing else you’ve heard, but if Sly and The Family Stone ever did punk, it might sound a little bit like it. That Remain In Light still makes perfect sense as a complete album blows me away every time.

The aforementioned My Life In The Bush of Ghosts can be heard emerging from several of the tracks on Remain In Light, not least the famous swirling “preaching” of Once In A Lifetime. Of course, although the lyrics of Once In A Lifetime are all lifted from sermons that Byrne heard on evangelical radio stations, the song isn’t about preaching… it’s about epiphany, about the moment of revelation.

And if the album had a common lyrical theme (it’s stretching it a little to claim that it does), then it would be just that… revelation, epiphany, realisation… unexpected understanding. The album’s heart lies in the two tracks Seen And Not Seen and The Listening Wind which foreshadow the approaching Overload. In The Listening Wind we are presented with a glimpse into the heart of an anti-American / anti-capitalist terrorist, Mojique… planting bombs and lying low waiting for news of the explosions. Yet Mojique’s story is told with empathy, warmth and even romance…

Mojique sees his village from a nearby hill
Mojique thinks of days before Americans came
He sees the foreigners in growing numbers
He sees the foreigners in fancy houses
He thinks of days that he can still remember… now.

Mojique holds a package in his quivering hands
Mojique sends the package to the American man
Softly he glides along the streets and alleys
Up comes the wind that makes them run for cover
He feels the time is surely now or never… more.

The wind in my heart
The wind in my heart
The dust in my head
The dust in my head
The wind in my heart
The wind in my heart
(come to) drive them away
Drive them away.

Mojique buys equipment in the market place
Mojique plants devices in the free trade zone
He feels the wind is lifting up his people
He calls the wind to guide him on his mission
He knows his friend the wind is always standing… by.

Mojique smells the wind that comes from far away
Mojique waits for news in a quiet place
He feels the presence of the wind around him
He feels the power of the past behind him
He has the knowledge of the wind to guide him… on.

The wind in my heart
The wind in my heart
The dust in my head
The dust in my head
The wind in my heart
The wind in my heart
(come to) drive them away
Drive them away.

The Listening Wind | Lyrics: David Byrne

Even back when Remain In Light was released, the notion that terrorists could be viewed sympathetically in popular music was an uncomfortable one. These days it’s positively subversive. But Byrne has never shirked from tackling the uncomfortable subjects… indeed it seems to be where he’s at his best; paradoxically where he’s most comfortable. Even today, with direct attacks on the Bush administration in songs like Empire (from his most recent album, Grown Backwards) and even more direct attacks from his blog, he’s – thankfully – not an artist ever likely to be cowed by political pressure.

Just prior to The Listening Wind, however, is the unsettling Seen And Not Seen… exploring the alienation and psychosocial distortion created by the mediation of culture and experience… the song is a gloriously hypnotic bass and percussion line, over which Byrne blankly recites the words… the creepiness of the opening lines… “he would see faces in movies, on TV, in magazines, and in books. He thought that some of these faces might be right for him.” never lets up. Right to the final few words left hanging within the relentless rhythms… “He wonders if he too might have made a similar mistake…….”

Just left hanging there.

There’s not a single bad track on Remain In Light. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that there’s not a song on the album that isn’t a classic. The handful of albums which qualify as “essential” often – though not always – possess that quality. If you don’t already own this album, then this new release is the perfect excuse to check it out. And you can trust me when I say that from an audio-quality standpoint, it’s a huge improvement over the original release.

For those who already own Remain In Light, it’s a little more complicated. By themselves, the extra tracks probably don’t justify the cost unless you’re a big fan. Don’t get me wrong, the bonus material is great to have, but it’s not the reason to buy the rerelease (I’ve spent far, far more time listening to the original album on 5.1 speakers than I have listening to the extra tracks or watching the videos). I would say this though; if you believe it’s a great album, then the remastering is worth buying it again for. It’s almost like hearing it for the first time.

Posted in: Reviews » Music reviews