How Talking Heads Found the Sweet Spot With ‘Speaking in Tongues’
After charting a steadily upward commercial trajectory with their first four albums, Talking Heads appeared poised for a breakthrough on May 31, 1983, with their fifth LP, Speaking in Tongues. And that’s exactly what they achieved, selling a million records and scoring their first (as well as only) Top 10 single.
Unlike a number of acts that found a larger audience during the ’80s by retrofitting their sound with tons of synths, drum machines and radio-friendly hooks, Talking Heads refused to dumb down or fundamentally alter their music. Instead, they refined and evolved, trusting their audience to follow along. With Speaking in Tongues, that evolution happened to hit the sweet spot between their New Wave avant-garde roots and the Top 40 airwaves.
As David Byrne put it in an interview with NPR many years later, “We felt it was possible to work within a kind of pop song format and kind of do what you wanted as long as you stayed within that format. And having a love of pop music, we felt that occasionally something we did kind of by accident would connect to a larger public and other things would not.”
The record’s lead-off single, the Top 10 hit “Burning Down the House,” set the tone for the record — both in terms of its sound, which took the angular art-school vibe of the band’s early releases and infused it with heavy R&B and soul overtones, as well as its writing style, which found Byrne vamping gibberish over rehearsal demos until the lyrics revealed themselves and giving the album its title.
Working with an expanded lineup that augmented the original four-piece of Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz, bassist Tina Weymouth and keyboardist-guitarist Jerry Harrison with a coterie of session players that included Parliament–Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, the band broadened its sonic palette, bouncing high-tech sounds up against funk-influenced grooves and anchoring it all with their rock roots.
Tongues‘ sessions found the quartet at a creative crossroads — as Weymouth later put it, “We spent so many years trying to be original that we don’t know how to be original any more” — and still smarting from its time with producer Brian Eno, whose close relationship with Byrne left the others feeling marginalized. But after taking a brief hiatus to focus on separate projects, they regrouped with a newly reaffirmed sense of purpose. And without Eno, whose pioneering presence could still be felt — but without the occasionally adverse effects. As writer David Bowman put it in his Talking Heads biography, This Must Be the Place, “They still appeared more Addams Family than Brady Bunch, but they no longer seemed to be embittered.”
“Burning Down the House” would ultimately go down as the band’s biggest hit, but it’s the second single from “Speaking in Tongues” that’s arguably the record’s true classic: “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” in which band members switched instruments to produce a deliberately simple arrangement behind one of pop music’s most endearingly frank looks at long-term romantic commitment. While a major part of the band’s early appeal rested on its air of cool detachment, and subsequent releases lacked the spirit of excitement that enlivened Tongues, here it all came together — for Talking Heads as well as their fans.
“The incredible nature of the band at the time [was that] everybody looked at them and wondered what exactly held them together,” mused former Velvet Underground member John Cale (quoted in a Heads eulogy penned by Bowman for Salon). “That’s kind of a really cool cinematic thing about them; the best thing about cinema is when the audience is just incredulous about the plot and the story line of the film. And you think, ‘This can’t possibly be true.’ And you follow it and you believe it and you buy it. The charm of Talking Heads was the same way. ‘This can’t possibly be true.’”
In less than a decade, it really wouldn’t be true anymore: Byrne announced the band’s breakup in 1991. But with Speaking in Tongues, they made pop’s boundaries seem almost limitless.
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