They were having to set themselves challenges and ultimately I don't think Byrne's heart was in it. How much time had he spent with the rest of the band since 1984? You could probably count it in terms of weeks.
Speaking in Tongues (1983)
It was around this time that Talking Heads were at the peak of their powers. I don't mean that this was their best album (though it is certainly one of them) but that they had reached their critical high point. Speaking in Tongues was their first million selling album. Andy Warhol was inviting them for lunch; Robert Wilson and Susan Sontag were watching in the audience when they played and Seymour Stein was taking a young artist called Madonna backstage to meet the band. Their songs were beginning to creep onto film soundtracks. They were hot. Speaking in Tongues was produced by the band and although many of the artists that fleshed out the Remain in Light tour appeared on the album this was much more the product of the core band. Basically there was no fucking Brian Eno, if you were of Tina Weymouth's persuasion. The sound had moved on again – the songs were still funky, and it still sounded like they were the product of improvisational jams, but now they were more synth based. Girlfriend is Better and Making Flippy Floppy are great pop songs whilst Swamp saw Talking Heads at their bluesiest. Burning Down the House even became a surprise hit, partially thanks to MTV. The album finished with Naïve Melody, the warmest track that Talking Heads had written up to that point.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Another live album?! What could easily be construed as a piss take was actually just about acceptable. After all, wasn't this the soundtrack to the greatest concert film of all time? Jonathan Demme directed and Byrne arranged the stage show. The film was important as much for what it left out as for what it put in. There were no shots of the band arriving at the venue. No fans queuing up. There were pretty much no shots of the audience at all. No back stage back slapping. No interviews. There was just the performance. Included in that, however, was one song that didn't fit - Demme made a massive cock-up by leaving the Tom Tom Club track in. It was fair enough in the context of the stage show – Byrne had to put on his big suit – but in terms of the film it was rather like inserting a tap dance routine into the last reel of Deer Hunter.
Parsimonious as ever only nine songs made it onto the album. Vinyl had its limitations; CD and tape did not. But then it must be noted that when it comes to B sides (and extras in general) Talking Heads are one of the tightest bands of all time. If I'm being kind I guess it is because all of the band members spent so much time on their side projects. Anyway, the nine songs basically formed a greatest hits package. The album showed off the four Speaking in Tongues tracks very well and the band produced a great version of What A Day That Was from The Catherine Wheel. However, any casual listener would still be shepherded towards The Name of This Band to get an idea of the Talking Heads live experience.
Little Creatures (1985)
Did you hear that? If you were listening very carefully you would just have heard the sound of Talking Heads becoming inessential. Why? Was it because they had stopped touring? Was it because they hadn't actually hung out with each other for years? Whatever the reason(s), the upshot was that Talking Heads went pop. The album gave them a huge and deserved hit with Road to Nowhere (wish they'd upped the drumming a bit though). And She Was was none too shabby either. Overall, the album was simpler, warmer and more organic. There were less keyboards and more steel guitar. The album also contained some of Byrne's weakest lyrics and was, I think, hamstrung by some pretty ham-fisted production. Other songs included Creatures of Love - a genuine naïve melody, its lyrics were more banal than gnomic and it could have graced a country album. (Give Me Back My) Name sounded as though it could have come from the Fear of Music sessions. Lady Don't Mind was strangely unsettling and Stay Up Late amused. But it was ultimately their weakest album by some distance.
Music from the Knee Plays (1985)
Or Byrne with a brass band. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band of New Orleans to be precise. The occasion was Robert Wilson's Civil Wars (or at least that was the idea) – a massive project that would require interludes, or knee plays, to act as joints between the main action. In total contrast with Little Creatures was Byrne at his flattest here, narrating a series of stories (and sometimes lists) in the deadpan style of old. In Social Studies he imagined that if he took home someone else's groceries then he would, for the length of time that he was eating them, become that person. On I've Tried he lists a series of objects or instructions such as No.8 – Parking, No.9 – Fixing things...No. 15 – Bumpy things. This is actually a great track, although I have no idea why. It just becomes very funny. Elsewhere there are instrumentals based on traditional songs and whilst the overall feeling is of an interesting idea stretched a little too far it is still an enjoyable album.
True Stories (1986) and True Stories Soundtrack Album (1986)
What the band needed after Little Creatures, which was only a fitfully successful experiment, was a solid return to form. What the band served up was a genuine dud. These were tracks from David Byrne's film of the same name. It was a pretty good film – not perhaps everything that we might have hoped for, but a pretty good film nonetheless. And it had the late and much missed Spalding Gray in it for crying out loud. And Pops Staples. The album was made up of rock, country and Latino songs. They featured steel guitars and lyrics made from advertising slogans. None of them were very good. Radio Head (from which the band took their name), Love For Sale and Hey Now were absolute clunkers. Puzzlin' Evidence was ok but it was better in the film (as was Papa Legba). The only track that stands out is City of Dreams. Talking Heads basically made an album of pastiches and True Stories should never have been a Talking Heads album. There was probably one good soundtrack album that could have been made up from all the material that was released. The actor's versions of the songs that were released as singles could have accounted for a few of the tracks. Talking Heads could have sung a couple of tracks, and some of the songs from the actual soundtrack album could have filled it out. Much of this album is background music – tracks like Freeway Son, Mall Muzak and Brownie's Theme are eminently forgettable. On the other hand Cocktail Desperado features the genius that is Terry Allen and Road Song is a decent Meredith Monk track. Dinner Music features The Kronos Quartet and Glass Operator is Dream operator but with glasses and a cello. Such an album would have been OK - as it was, with two albums and various singles, the True Stories material was spread too thinly. Far too thinly.
Naked was to be the final Talking Heads album and sadly it did little to arrest their artistic decline. If I had to say why I think the final three albums are disappointments it is because it feels as though they were going through the motions. It was as though they had to come up with ideas – let's do pop, or let's do Americana – to stimulate themselves, as opposed to just turning up and wanting to play. They were having to set themselves challenges and ultimately I don't think Byrne's heart was in it. How much time had he spent with the rest of the band since 1984? You could probably count it in terms of weeks. There are a few good moments – the singles Blind and Nothing But Flowers were strong tracks but there was also a lot here that just didn't sound like Talking Heads. Something really wasn't right. The horn arrangements on Mr. Jones give an idea of where Byrne's real interests at the time lay and Rei Momo would show it very clearly a year later. But so many of these songs just fail – Democratic Circus, Facts of Life and Ruby Dear all indicate a band that has run its course. The album featured Kirsty MacColl, Johnny Marr and Arthur Russell (the cellist that Byrne and Harrison played with in Russell's group Dinosaur L) and a host of talented musicians but this was no Remain in Light. Turn out the light would perhaps have been a better album title.
Rei Momo (1989)
As I say, I don't think Byrne's heart was in the Naked sessions – Rei Momo made that pretty obvious. His heart lay in his love for music from Latin American and from Brazil in particular. The same year saw the debut release from Byrne's Luaka Bop label – a collection of Brazilian Tropicalismo tracks from the 70s and 80s that is utterly wonderful. On Rei Momo Byrne assembled an all-star backing band and recorded a 15 track, one hour-long album. Proof again that Byrne was committed to the project: you never got that amount of material on a Talking Heads studio album. World music, as it still is called, has often been the refuge of the clapped out artist with nothing else to say. Byrne's love of music from all over the world could never be seen in cynical terms and this album has a warmth that is unrivalled in the Byrne canon. Many of the songs concern love, sex and hope. Indeed it is initially quite a shock to hear Byrne sing 'Now and then I get horny,' - the first line on the album. The gentleness of Rei Momo is almost off-putting. The songs are based around percussion and horns but there is a massive difference between these tracks and those on The Knee Plays – many of the songs on Rei Momo sound like Latino lullabies. There is also no sign that this is just another experiment – it is an album borne of love and it clearly shows. Highlights include Marching Through the Wilderness, a live favourite, and Carnival Eyes, a song that came out of Talking Heads recording sessions.
The Forest (1991)
Of course, Byrne has always experimented, most particularly in his side projects. It is just that not all experiments work. The Forest can probably best be described as a folly. The music actually dates from 1988 and was produced for a theatre project with Robert Wilson. At the time Byrne was reading The Epic of Gilgamesh and thinking about how ancient myths still form the basis of today's stories. He was also thinking about how many of our belief systems were born in, and remain largely unchanged from, the time of the industrial revolution. Byrne tried to make music that was influenced by the Romantic composers and which mythologized the factory. Hmm. The tracks are all orchestral and only one features any decipherable lyrics. The two central tracks of the album, Ur and Ava, both clock in at over 10 minutes and feature Byrne yodelling over pleasant sounding violins. Both tracks sound as though they were made up of four or five smaller songs that have been patched together. It appears that some attempt has been made to smooth out the changes between the different songs but these transitions remain clunky. I imagine that this is deliberate – many of the other tracks start very hesitantly, as though they are feeling their way. Samara, zither lead, does this, as does Tula, and whilst both eventually blossom there is something lumbering about them. To be honest, there is something lumbering about the whole album. It is an interesting failure, but it is a failure all the same.
Sand in The Vaseline (1992)
This brings us to the end of the Talking Heads story. Byrne officially killed the band off towards the end of 1991 but it was already obvious that it was over. Sand in the Vaseline, a compilation album, offered up eight new tracks, the best of which were those recorded as demos prior to Talking Heads:77. All four are good songs but the best is perhaps I Wish You Wouldn't Say That, featuring as it does a brilliant vocal performance from Byrne. Here the band sounds sharp and urgent, although the sleeve notes do explain that this was partially due to time restrictions. The final four songs are from 1991 when the band found some old rhythm tracks and tarted them up. They aren't terribly good – Popsicle of Love is as throwaway as it sounds but Sax and Violins (despite the awful title) isn't bad. Lifetime Piling Up is the standout song. It came out of the Naked sessions and is far superior to virtually everything that graced the actual album. I can't say that it is necessarily worth buying this album but it is fun to hear the old songs and to read all the sniping that was going on. You don't really need to read between the lines to spot the many digs that Tina makes of David.