Musicheads Essentials: Talking Heads - Remain in Light

by Steve Seel

Album art for Talking Heads's
Album art for Talking Heads's "Remain in Light" (Album Art)
  1. Listen Musichead Essentials - The Talking Heads

    Apr 3, 2012

My pick this time for Musicheads Essentials is the 1980 avant-pop masterpiece from Talking Heads, Remain in Light. Written during a chapter of extreme creative exploration for the band, Remain in Light is not only considered by many to be Talking Heads' crowning achievement, but one of the greatest albums of the 1980s.

After working with experimental music mastermind Brian Eno for albums two and three, Talking Heads reconnected with Eno in a recording studio in the Bahamas to brainstorm ideas for their fourth LP. The band had already begun toying with a novel new approach to songwriting: one based not on melodies or traditional song forms, but looped, repeating instrumental riffs, written collectively, inspired heavily by the improvisatory structures of African music. Eno, electrified by what he heard, jumped in to helm the project that would wind up as one of the most kinetic, stunningly innovative examples of whimsical hybrid-rock ever committed to tape.

I first encountered Remain in Light through the song that counts as most people's intro to the record: the stupefyingly weird and wonderful "Once in a Lifetime," which in a way serves as a perfect summation of all the elements that make up the album as a whole. Propulsive, simultaneously funky and totally alien, it was as disorienting as it was impossible to sit still for. In my mind, "Once in a Lifetime" is one of the greatest songs in rock history — a spasmodic burst of 20th century angst melded to one of the most original, inspired grooves ever.

From there, the album stretches out in either direction with a set of infectious, thumpy tunes that all contain one overriding characteristic: none contain more than one chord each. Every composition is focused around its core groove, its structure in every case assembled in painstaking detail. From the sweaty "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)" to the frenetic "The Great Curve," each track sounds like a snippet of some perpetual composition that we've joined in progress and that will go on forever after the fadeout.

Remain in Light is required listening for anyone interested in successful pop avant-gardism — one of the finest examples in rock music of raw experimentation yielding something surprisingly accessible and enjoyable. To this day, the album stands alone as a snapshot of pure invention, sounding like nothing else before or since.

Steve Seel