Strange things can happen when big money and music meet, even the unintended. Finance, along with the pursuit of attention, has so hyper-commodified the music industry that even a glimpse of its looser creative past feels unreal. This didn't happen in an eye blink, but gradually coalesced as mass culture morphed into super-mass culture through the absolute omnipresence of the internet and social media. People plugged into this vaporous edifice can no longer escape it. As such, we no longer seek culture, it seeks us. Today, it can find us with pinpoint precision and, almost surreptitiously, it shapes and defines the way we process the world. In this milieu, nothing happens in isolation. Rarely is a song just a song. Most singers are not just singers, but also models or actors. In fact, being a model seems to be the best starting point, if not a prerequisite, for any kind of entertainment career today (except for playing "evil" characters). If this new world tells us anything, it's that looks are everything. But we knew that.
Music also has a hard time standing on its own. An album needs an image first and foremost. Think of Adele's inescapable decapitated catatonic gaze. Videos, a movie or apps must also accompany the "mere music." Way back in 1986, when "DDD" really meant something, this inexorable trend had already gained well-rooted traction. In those wispy analog days of yore, David Byrne wanted to make a film. His band, Talking Heads, had quickly evolved from undisputed masters of explosively innovative rock to pop music household names. This newfound fame and wealth granted Byrne some commercial license for larger projects. But movies need money and money requires financiers. As the rumor mill goes, Byrne intended the songs for this film project to only appear in the film and he only wanted the actors to sing them. This whole enterprise likely didn't begin as a "Talking Heads" project but as a David Byrne project. The band itself, who, apart from Byrne, didn't appear in the original film, seems tacked on after the fact. Given the recent success of Talking Heads, with radio hits such as "Burning Down the House" and "And She Was," the film's backers supposedly wanted an album released alongside the movie. Back then, oh those legendary days, albums could produce fertile revenue streams. Really, they could. Though against Byrne's wishes, the backers had financial savvy because the album more than likely spawned far more cash than the movie. Thus "True Stories" found its way into the marketplace as a film and as Talking Heads' somewhat unintentional seventh studio album. Money and music again produced the unexpected.
Sadly, the band had come to a splintered crossroads by this time. Their previous album, "Little Creatures," though very successful, treated the band itself as merely a backup to Byrne. Unlike some of their earlier releases, Byrne had written the vast majority of the songs and taught them to the other members. The older method of composing via the whole band improvising in the studio, used on "Speaking in Tongues," had vanished along with the members' personal relationships. So once again Byrne assembled the now disgruntled band and taught them some simple pop songs. Once again they felt like an afterthought to Byrne's dominance and rising musical and artistic reputation. This sordid situation produced another highly successful album financially, but it remains Talking Heads' least acclaimed, and probably least inspired, release. Nonetheless, a band's worst albums do test its musical resilience. Some "worst" albums really are execrable and embarrassing. Countless examples exist, none of which anyone probably wants to recall. But if "True Stories" shows the Talking Heads at their "worst," then this band really had something, because it still sounds relatively fresh today - for the most part, at least.
"Love For Sale," the album's explosive opener, provides an absolute highlight and may qualify as one of Talking Heads' best songs. It just rocks. The layers of competing guitar and almost subliminal backing tracks sound different with each listen. In almost every way it stands eons above the album's aging hit, "Wild Wild Life." Perhaps the song's explicit condemnation of pitching products with sex kept it off the heavily sponsored airwaves. "Dream Operator" may stand as Talking Heads' most beautiful song. It successfully dangles on the edge of sentimentality without ever falling over. The simple music box counter-melodies sound almost unsophisticated and puerile upon first listen, but they interweave to gorgeous effect and quickly reveal a complex tapestry of harmony. "City of Dreams" also sounds solid today. The closest this band ever came to a power ballad, it tells a sad tale of dinosaurs, legendary settlers, gold, genocide and broken small town dreams. A melancholy longing pervades the song's repetitive but gradually mesmerizing verses. It also asks some ominously nagging questions: where do our current dreams and desires come from? Upon what were our towns and cities founded? Who are we? An enlightening lifelong education awaits anyone who attempts to follow that dusty meandering path. Pop music rarely raises such specters.
"Wild Wild Life" once soaked the airwaves. This song's chart performance alone, though not stellar, sent this album's sales skyrocketing, to the unending pleasure of the financial backers, no doubt. Though still highly enjoyable and catchy, it exemplifies the production values of its day and so has begun to sound a little dated. Byrne only recently resurrected it on his tour with St. Vincent. "Radio Head" not only inspired a band name but also provides some musica norteña hooks. This version could have used some extra oomph to make it into an absolutely great recording. At times it feels slightly lagging. "People Like Us," sung memorably by John Goodman in the film, dives deep into country. Its excellent refrain may sum up, maybe unfairly or possibly satirically, the underlying feelings of many people: "we don't want freedom, we don't want justice, we just want someone to love." The remaining songs extend the range of the album into gospel-inspired media criticism, fervent adolescent desires and mysticism. All are enjoyable, but none are really essential.
How the Talking Heads managed to record another album after the overt viciousness of "True Stories" remains a sullen mystery. Tired of marginalization, some band members lashed out at Byrne in a divisive Rolling Stone interview. They criticized his maturity, his tyranny, the lackluster quality of his new songs, the unpopularity of his film and their subjugation as a band. Outright rebellion broke out. This may have provided the foundation for the "bad blood" Byrne has referred to in interviews. Perhaps even more occurred that thankfully never made it into the press. In any case, it was depressing for many fans to watch the childishness on all sides surface so brutally. But this did make the appearance of their final album, "Naked," a mere two years later all the more shocking. Their subsequent long dwindling breakup came as far less of a surprise. As one member of another infamous breakup once sang: "all things must pass." The Talking Heads soon drifted into history, floating above all the accumulated detritus of popular music.
on February 19, 2013
I am a Talking Heads fan. Their work can be divided into three eras - Early, Eno, & later. I love the early stuff, but may prefer the Eno section, however there are gems throughout their entire catalog.
FTR - Stop Making Sense is the finest concert DVD I own and represents all three sections including a Tom Tom Club tune - the original quartet fortified with a ferocious band, including Bernie Worrell!
True Stories contains several first rate songs. The production is the issue that must put people off - it does me. If you are used to the funky poli-rhythms of the Eno period (and even Little Creatures and Naked, which followed), then this is a big surprise. I would suggest that even the early albums were funkier than True Stories, certainly more subtle and delicate.
True Lies has a big, unfunky, drum beat. Not necessarily a bad thing, it rocks harder than most TH albums. It propels some of their most popular tunes very nicely. However, it feels less sophisticated than any other Talking Heads recording. Were they aspiring to more success in AOR? Hard to say. I would suggest that the return to the heavily syncopated beats in Naked proves the point that even the band felt they were not optimizing their sound.
Bad record? No. David Byrne and the Talking Heads don't make BAD records. This just isn't their best one.