David Byrne Ken Emerson - Essay

Ken Emerson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 whose songs have expressed a similar fear that love will deflect her artistic career.

Love and work, of course, is what Freud said all of us need, but on More Songs about Buildings and Food, Byrne appears able to imagine the proper equilibrium only in "Found a Job," wherein a bickering couple's relationship improves while collaborating on television scripts. He sings about this improvement with considerable sarcasm, though, and elsewhere on the LP, love and logic are at loggerheads. The tension between the two, like the similar tension Bryan Ferry creates between sentimentality and sophistication, is excruciating, and when it snaps in the album's final song, "The Big Country"…. Byrne is bounced into the void. Flying over the United States, he looks down with regret and revulsion at life below…. Yet, at the same time, he's "tired of traveling" and wants "to be somewhere." Like a hijacked airplane that no nation will permit to land, the singer seems doomed to fly until his fuel is exhausted and he plummets to a fiery death.

Sound gloomy? Well it would be if Byrne didn't see hilarity in tight-assed hysteria and laugh at his Puritan pratfalls…. The eclecticism of More Songs about Buildings and Food—its witty distillations of disco and reggae rhythms, its reconciliation of "art" and punk rock—is masterful. The music represents a triumph over diversity, while the words spell out defeat by disparities between mind and body, head and heart.

This, presumably, is why Talking Heads make music—and superb music at that. Because talk is cheap. (p. 89)

Ken Emerson, "Talking Heads: Preppie but Potent," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1978; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 276, October 19, 1978, pp. 89-90.