Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Talking Heads' Fear of Music (2012)

(My Internet-ironical review of the album here.)

Jonathan Lethem is one of my favorite writers and Fear of Music is one of my favorite albums—of all, ever, not just of Talking Heads albums. So this was practically guaranteed to impress and it did not disappoint. For what it's worth it's also the first book I've read, beyond browsing in bookstores, in the still-growing 33⅓ series. The series matches one writer to one album (based on a curated volunteer system, it appears). Lethem is good, a really fine novelist (Motherless Brooklyn is a particular favorite), and this shows how casually excellent he can be as a rock critic too. Well, 2003's Fortress of Solitude had already made that quite evident. But I really love the way he goes at it, bearing down so hard. And this should be instructive too—for me and for all of us! Hours and hours of intense listening and gathering up of scraps of notes and thoughts went into this. It is as much a labor of love as anything I know. I think he might even like Fear of Music more than me, and I have always been that crank in my circles. Lethem attacks the whole by theme and each song individually, exploring a taxonomy of "types": Talking Heads versus David Byrne albums, text, concept LP, science fiction, Asperger's artifact, in terms of the paranoiac, etc. It's an album you can go quite deep with and he is here to prove it. I don't agree with him on many particulars—he calls "Electric Guitar" rather than "I Zimbra" the weakest track (one of my theories for why it's such an underrated album relates to kicking off with the one song that doesn't belong). And he often seems to be missing the humor I perceive as pervasive. But he brings a tremendous, even daunting level of insight to the album, the music, and the band, picking up on all kinds of things I had missed before or never exactly put together. Lethem makes a beautiful argument for why "Life During Wartime" and "Memories Can't Wait" are titled appropriately for the album's naming schema, as opposed to "War" and "Memories," which might seem more apt at first. Admittedly, we might be going into the deep weeds here. I love it when he talks about the "disco ambulance" of "Cities"—that is nigh perfect. He locates a critical center of gravity on the album in "Cities" and "Life During Wartime," side by side, nearly direct inversions of one another, each furiously name-checking city names and worried about the future, albeit in very different ways. "Memories Can't Wait," Lethem says, implodes them both, proceeding out of themes first established in "Mind." It's altogether quite a trip, much like the album. Recommended.

In case it's not at the library.

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