David Byrne Essay - Critical Essays

Byrne, David


David Byrne 1953?–

American songwriter.

Byrne is one of the most prominent songwriters to come out of the New Wave movement of the late 1970s. He writes mostly for the group Talking Heads, although he has also collaborated with avant-garde musician Brian Eno and dancer Twyla Tharp. Byrne's songs are intensely private explorations of human emotions and personal observations of commonplace events. Probably the most important theme running through his songs is his despairing view of contemporary American society. Byrne has been criticized for the triteness of some of his lyrics. However, he is less concerned with expressing complex thoughts than with composing lyrics that are strictly logical. John Picarella has written of Byrne's songs, "Perceptions and sensations are experienced systematically, almost as if they're on a graph."

Talking Heads: 77 is considered a triumphant debut album. It introduces the major topics of Byrne's songs: love, fear, and violence. Byrne's staccato-punctuated singing style in songs like "Psycho Killer" heightens the urgency and impact of his lyrics. The songs on More Songs about Buildings and Food center on the need to be in control of one's emotions and the unpleasant result of distancing oneself from emotional involvement. Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues indicate that Byrne is becoming interested in unusual rhythm structures and is moving from individual concerns to more universal ones.

Mark Stevens

Mr. Byrne's lyrical approach, with his thick, involved poetic style, serves up the element which most distinguishes Talking Heads from other rock groups. His main topic (and he makes no attempt to disguise it) is love.

He couches his thoughts in abstract images—space, distance, time—and he delivers them in a uniquely disjointed manner that has become a Talking Heads trademark. Like an overstuffed suitcase, Mr. Byrne's lyrics are hard to unpack….

Mr. Byrne's lyrics are open to any number of interpretations. But, like Bob Dylan lyrics, sometimes accused of the same "fault," they may manage to outlive such criticism.

Mark Stevens, "Two Fresh Rock Groups on the Way Up," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1977 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), April 25, 1977, p. 27.∗

Chris Brazier

I fully expected to be floored … by Talking Heads' first album ["Talking Heads: 77"]…. Unfortunately, I haven't been. Trouble is, I don't know quite what the album does do for me.

Maybe I shouldn't have expected so much. For instance, "Psycho Killer, qu'est-ce que c'est" always seemed a fascinating song-title—I imagined some eerie midnight lurking classic—but, while this is okay, it does no justice to the potential of the idea, even incorporating the inevitably self-conscious use of French….

There's so much to praise, not least the quality of some of the songs. The single, "Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town," for example, is beautifully eccentric, simultaneously challenging and appealing…. On the other hand a couple of the pieces—"Who Is It?" and "Carefree" are dispensable, and the quirky stop-go style which pervades the album tends to push me away….

My uncertain reaction to the work is quite appropriate because indecision seems to be the key to Byrne's lyrics. In "Tentative Decisions" the world is so confused that all decision-making, even distinguishing between male and female characteristics, becomes impossible.

One way of escaping decision is to retreat into a cosy private universe ("Don't Worry About The Government," a dead ringer for early 10cc), another is to hand over power to a stronger figure ("Pulled Up"), but both are rightly ridiculed as inadequate here. But...

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Scott Isler

[David Byrne's] songs are childishly simple, employing straightforward declarative lyrics and repetitious rhythmic motifs….

Talking Heads: 77 is distinctly more listenable than the group in person…. The vocals themselves are clearly recorded, allowing one to appreciate Byrne's involuted imagery. Few songwriters would attempt setting psychiatric advice to music, but Byrne (on "No Compassion") makes it sound natural. "The Book I Read" … is a joyous celebration of love which even transcends words after awhile….

In common with Jonathan Richman, David Byrne is taking almost a zen approach to rock; the Heads aren't likely to trade in their amplifiers, however. This album will test your capacity for wonder.

Scott Isler, in his review of "Talking Heads: 77," in Trouser Press (copyright © 1977 by Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, Inc.), Vol. 4, No. 9, November, 1977, p. 37.

Stephen Demorest

[Talking Heads' debut album, Talking Heads '77, is an absolute triumph.] (p. 98)

"The Book I Read," like so many of their songs, burbles with excitement, a feeling of expansion overcoming restraint. "Pulled Up" is the real champ, though, a fiercely exhilarating rush of aural amyl nitrate….

Exploring the logic and disorientation of love, decision making, ambition and the need for selfishness, [Byrne] gropes for articulation like a metaphysician having difficulty computing emotions.

Given his relatively unlyrical nature, Byrne's burgeoning persona is not in the least tentative. "No Compassion" asserts all the impatience of Lou Reed in a bad mood, while "Psycho Killer" pulses with vehemence….

Not only is this a great album, it's also one of the definitive records of the decade. (p. 101)

Stephen Demorest, "Talking Heads' Stunning Debut," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1977; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 251, November 3, 1977, pp. 98, 101.

Frank Rose

[Talking Heads: 77] comes in on an artfully oblique plane.

[What] do you make of a band that delivers lines like "My building has every convenience / It's going to make life easy for me" with the same fervor the Who always reserved for "My Generation"? Those lines are from "Don't Worry About the Government," by far the strangest song on this album. The other tunes are mostly about love and problems and decision-making (heavy emphasis on decision-making), or else they seem like fractured images from some kind of drug experience. "Don't Worry About the Government" is about two things that don't have to do with any of this. It's about how nice it is to move into a new building with all the modern conveniences, and how nice all the civil servants are in Washington, D.C. Somehow the two become confused, and at the end you hear Byrne singing "Don't you worry 'bout ME!" in a way that suggests "me" and the government are identical.

There's something reminiscent of the '50s about this song in particular and Talking Heads: 77 in general: a faith in know-how and the basic rightness of things that's as characteristically American as it is naive. Yet somehow it doesn't come out very American with Talking Heads; theirs is a romantic, lyrical faith—an intellectual glorification, and an artistic rendering, of innocence that seems both simple-minded and complex and is never quite what it seems.

Frank Rose, "Babytalking Heads" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXII, No. 45, November 7, 1977, p. 53 [the excerpt from David Byrne's lyrics used here was taken from "Don't Worry About the Government" (© 1977 Bleu Disque Music Co., Inc. & Index Music, Inc.; all rights reserved; used by permission of Warner Bros. Music)].

Ian Birch

I can hardly believe ["More Songs about Buildings and Food" is] THIS good. On a law of averages, we've almost exceeded our current quota of 24-carat albums.

Dylan has returned to Olympian form, the Stones and Springsteen have shown they are alive and creatively kicking, while Magazine has lived up to all those Great Expectations. Now we have the second Talking Heads album and it's superb….

It touches all the vital parts at one and the same time. The songs are intelligent and provocative without being condescending or too obtruse. That must satisfy the head. If the words at first seem indecipherable, just persevere. You'll be rewarded.

David Byrne … has...

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John Piccarella

On the cover of [Talking Heads'] new album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, a life-sized group portrait is created from hundreds of extreme close-up Polaroids; the composite is sectioned into squares, the way a photorealist would reproduce a photograph on canvas. The resulting photomosaic, though composed of clear photographic images, is more like a painting—distorted, fascinating, and unreal.

Talking Heads' songs are similarly dissociated, blindly passionate while rigidly logical, naively logical though twisted by passion. Perceptions and sensations are experienced systematically, almost as if they're on a graph….

The Talking Heads program for living in a mechanical...

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Jon Pareles

[On More Songs About Buildings and Food, David Byrne gazes] wide-eyed at the universe, absorbing and accepting. Byrne is determinedly childlike; he picks up pieces but either refuses to assemble them or applies his own para-rational analyses. In "The Good Thing," he hints at some weird combination of messianism and futurism….

Distance—the distance of a bewildered child—seems to have become the major fact of the Heads' world. On their first album, they were "happy," "carefree," optimistic; now, they're only separate…. Byrne doesn't seem upset by it, though; at least, he's no more upset than he is in general. It's just one more thing he finely observes. "The Girls Want to Be with the...

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Ken Tucker

[On "More Songs about Buildings and Food," The Girls Want to Be with the Girls], with its unstated but inevitable political implications, is exceptional to the Heads' style, which most often piles up vapid declarative sentences with idiot's repetition. But set within the context of the glowingly astute music, the repetition becomes everything but idiotic: the multiply allusive words serve both as hooks and quietly ironic jokes. So it is with the very title of the album…. Byrne uses as models not other rock & rollers …, but the young poets loosely referred to as the New York School—Tom Clark, Ron Padgett, and Anne Waldman. Byrne … shares with them an aesthetic/geographic sensibility in which...

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Ken Emerson

[On More Songs about Buildings and Food], Byrne's lyrics obsessively juxtapose the irreconcilable, nonnegotiable demands of the head and the heart….

If, in one song, Byrne chides the girls for ignoring the boys …, in most of the others, Byrne himself seems frantically to be staving off amorous involvement: "I've got to get to work now" (the traditional male equivalent of "Not tonight, honey—I've got a headache"). Indeed, the word work recurs throughout the record as the singer both pushes and parodies the Protestant ethic…. Love wreaks havoc on the rational, workaday world, and David Byrne's comic cold shoulder recalls the more strenuous resistance of Joni Mitchell, so many of...

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Lester Bangs

Fear of Music provides Heads'/Byrne's most explicit blueprint yet for survival in the face of paranoias—real or imagined, makes no difference…. [The] songs have a flow that makes it more immediately accessible. Byrne's a kind of Everyneurotic, wandering through the world encountering ouch-producers every step and breath he takes, relaying them back to us filtered through his sense of humor…. Fear of Music might as well have been called Fear of Everything. Show me an item extant sentient or otherwise in the world we share and I'll show you a clinically certified list of reasons why proximity to said item should be considered risky if not downright lethal….

In this album...

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Robot A. Hull

[Fear of Music] is the inevitable consequence of toying with psychosis. It's a work that is built, and also feeds, upon the paranoia of Fritz Lang's cinema, the violence of The Friends of Eddie Coyle and the terrorization of Mission: Impossible. This album lacks, and constantly avoids, the patriotism, sense of community and bubble gum-disco-psychedelic playfulness that make Talking Heads' first two albums such warm, albeit odd, friends. Like Randy Newman, Byrne has mastered the ironic backhand (i.e., "The Big Country", "Don't Worry About the Government"), but on Fear, songs like "Animals" and "Electric Guitar" are ironically banal….

The beauty of More Songs About...

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Jon Pareles

David Byrne's lyrics on Talking Heads' Fear of Music are paralogical visions stated with almost childlike directness: he thinks that air hits him in the face, that animals want to change his life, that "someone controls electric guitar." By itself, this perspective makes Byrne's songs fascinating. (p. 67)

Byrne has drastically shifted his verbal approach for Fear of Music. In his lyrics for earlier records, he let himself be self-conscious: he'd observe, analyze and make judgments. His new lyrics virtually eliminate abstraction—he doesn't consider, he feels. There's very little past and no future, just a jumble of sensations, as if it's all he can do to handle right now....

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Mitchell Cohen

Talking Heads have always—from their seven-inch start, "Love→A Building On Fire," a chain of logical emotionalism in which that arrow implied all—reminded me of the Bronx High School Of Science, which is probably why I've approached them with a mixture of attraction and wariness. Give a guy like Byrne a box of tinker toys and he'll build you a metropolis with a working sewer system; then, with colored pencils, he'll chart the links between the chamber of commerce and the red light district. A dangerous boy. On Remain In Light he's like a whizkid stoned on a whiff of the Famous Flames, caught in his own beat, mumbling disconnected phrases … on the stairwell. Not since Love's Arthur Lee has mulatto-rock...

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Scott Isler

Not to denigrate Talking Heads' well-deserved popularity, but as Remain in Light goes zooming up the record charts one is forced to ask: Just what are its purchasers going to do with it? Will it be taken as dance music with a college education, the spearhead (probably no pun intended) of an Africa-chic movement? Or will the consumer, stumbling over the enclosed lyric sheet, be caught up in David Byrne's metaphysical challenges?…

Rhythmic complexity, both vocal and instrumental, suffuses the songs…. Byrne doesn't write throwaway lyrics, though, and the tension between a funky groove and agonizing words is part of the Heads' unique formula….

Not all of Remain in...

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Eric Salzman

Byrne writes classic arty/surreal rock lyrics. The Catherine Wheel … apparently had something to do with the life and death of the American family, and Byrne's words hover menacingly around this topic. I recently described commercial television as being concerned with "stories of extreme violence and danger performed in an elliptical, laconic, laid-back style with heavy, threatening rhythmic undertones and a clipped, stylized surface." Except for the fact that there is no story, that is an accurate description of what's on this disc. Not only is there no literary, dramatic, or narrative content, there is no musical story either. No tune. These are rhythmic outlines for music with a ghastly emptiness...

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David Fricke

Speaking in Tongues, Talking Heads' first studio release in three years, is the album that finally obliterates the thin line separating arty white pop music and deep black funk. Picking up where their 1980 Afro-punk fusion Remain in Light left off, this LP consummates the Heads' marriage of art-school intellect and dance-floor soul…. Speaking in Tongues gives new meaning to the word crossover. (p. 53)

The Heads have never cut the funk into finer, more fluent pieces. Nor have they ever displayed such a sense of purpose and playfulness…. (pp. 53-4)

[It] is David Byrne's propulsive score for Twyla Tharp's 1981 dance piece The Catherine Wheel that...

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