Top of the Pops: Speaking in Tongues

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April 15, 2015 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

I really wanted to love Speaking in Tongues, but as it stands, I only like the Talking Heads’ follow up to Remain in Light.  It’s certainly more upbeat than its predecessor, but as with Remain in Light, there’s a feeling that on Speaking in Tongues that band isn’t doing as much as they can with their new dance inspired afro-pop fusion.  Some songs are great, but most tracks seem formulaic and imitate each other.

With songs like “Burning Down the House”, “Girlfriend is Better” and “Naïve Melody”, listeners know that the band is capable of masterfully packing their songs together with 34 different genres of music.  The other 2/3 of the album however seems like they’re treading water, or that they’re satisfied with going through the motions without further exploring where their new musical pursuits can take them.  So much could have been done on Speaking in Tongues, yet most songs seem to settle for the bare minimum.

Now this isn’t to say that the songs are bad, in fact, most of the songs are at the very least mildly entertaining, but all too often, especially during the middle four or five tracks, listeners will say to themselves “That’s it?”.  Every song on Speaking in Tongues follows the same basic formula: Slightly rhythmic melody that repeats itself for the entire song with little to know variance, with David Byrne saying funny words over it.  Once Byrne stops singing the songs aren’t as interesting, a fact made more evident as song like “Swamp”, “Making Flippy Floppy” and even “Burning Down the House” drag on for a full minute too long.

Although all nine songs are upbeat and chipper, they’re laid back as well, which robs Speaking in Tongues of the energy that any funk-inspired album should possess.  The only song that makes you want to get up is the dance classic “Girlfriend is Better”.  Because of this lack of kinetics, there’s a very real look-but-don’t-touch feel to the album that compounds on the idea that The Talking Heads did experiment as much as they should have on Speaking in Tongues.

The one area where the band did expand the most on, and this should come as no surprise, is David Byrne’s style of Tourette’s inspired singing.  On “Slippery People” and “Moon Rocks”, Byrne sounds like a schizophrenic preacher playing word association with himself.  This only serves to augment the bullshit philosophy that he spouts throughout the course of the album, as evident in the lines “As we get older, we stop making sense”, “God help us, help us lose our minds”, and “I got mass communication, I’m the human corporation”.  His lyrics, most of which aren’t supposed to make sense to anyone from this dimension, sound more powerful and insight than they should because of his spasmodically rhythmic vocals.

The crowning moment of Speaking in Tongues, and by extension Byrne’s career as a lyricist, comes in the album closer “This Must be the Place”.  Probably the most heartfelt song in the bands’ entire catalogue, “This Must be the Place” is one of the purest and innocent songs in pop music.  It’s the song that you hear when you come home after weeks of being away, and the love of your life is waiting for you at the door wearing your favorite t-shirt.  “I come home, she lifted up her wings, I guess that this must be the place”, although it’s an abstract lyric, it somehow captures what it’s like to be in love.  It’s the one time on the album that the laid back melody actually works to the songs’ benefit, and when executed properly, like on the last track, it works amazingly.

Speaking in Tongues is not without its flaws, mechanical as they might be, but it’s still a good album.  It just could have been better.  Five of the nine tracks are neutrons- Songs that are neither standouts nor duds or fillers; they just exist.  If they committed to going all in with their funk influences, or if George Clinton produced the album, it would have been the bands magnum opus.  As it stands, Speaking in Tongues is an album that, while entertaining, with the right focus and more energy, could have been better.

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