David Byrne Scott Isler - Essay

Scott Isler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Light adheres to the new musical rulebook. "Seen and Not Seen" is less a song than a Borges-like tale read matter-of-factly by Byrne over a syncopated beat….

While Remain in Light can be appreciated as sheer sound …, its most powerful moments blend words and music. "Once in a Lifetime" questions reality and illusion in the verses, and a chorus employing plaintive thirds introduces a water motif—one of the most powerful images in the poet's arsenal. Byrne is certainly a poet, if poetry can be considered the juggling of language for expressive purposes. This album taps a primeval vein in the subconscious: You'll tap your toes but you won't be able to shut out what these songs mean. Like the inverted A's in its name on the cover, Talking Heads has stood the dance concept on its head. Their music gains in meaning with each listen.

Scott Isler, in his review of "Remain in Light," in Trouser Press (copyright © 1981 by Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, Inc.), Vol. 7, No. 12, January, 1981, p. 42.