Talking Heads: “Crosseyed and Painless”
David Byrne has in recent years become almost better known for his music curation via the compilations of various world musics that he has put together on his Luaka Bop label than for his own compositions. Which isn’t to say he isn’t still doing his own thing; it’s just that his occasional solo releases don’t garner nearly as much attention as they once did, and for the most part he seems to have exhausted his once seemingly endless source of wild creativity. There was a time when this was certainly not the case, however — but it seems that it was primarily the additional inspiration of Talking Heads bandmates Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, and Chris Frantz that was responsible for drawing it out of him.
Between 1977 and 1979, the Talking Heads released three albums of increasingly world-music-influenced songs (and “world music” is really such a vague term, isn’t it; it certainly isn’t really a genre, just a too-easy way of saying “non-American/English music”): Talking Heads ’77, More Songs about Buildings and Food, and Fear of Music. Then, in 1980, the Talking Heads took those primarily African influences, which started to really come forth on Fear of Music, to the next level on Remain in Light and practically reinvented the musical vocabulary of Western pop and rock musicians in the process. (This was still 6 years before Paul Simon’s Graceland, for comparison’s sake.) Sure, other musicians had dabbled with it before, but the Talking Heads fusion of Western and African music was so seamless that it made the world sit up and take notice. The album also unfortunately marked the end of this direction for the band: although the very successful Speaking in Tongues followed, with some of these influences still showing up, they gradually moved into a more childlike, Americana-based (and ultimately less interesting) phase that continued until their breakup.
One of the most mind-blowing of the songs from Remain in Light is “Crosseyed and Painless,” a polyrhythmic, nearly 5-minute nonstop groove alongside which David Byrne sings/barks a great-sounding but somewhat-hard-to-parse set of lyrics. There’s a good deal said about how ineffectual facts can really be, but I’m still not completely sure what the song is about. But with a song as danceable as this, that flows with such vigor and grace, does it really matter what the song means? It’s just an incredible testimony to the awesome musicality of the Talking Heads that they could pull this off — it stands as a prime moment in what ended up being one of the most influential albums of the early ’80s. Bands like !!! (or “Chk Chk Chk,” for the punctuation-pronouncingly challenged) seemingly owe their entire sound to this album. Personally, Remain in Light is an album I never cease to be impressed by, enjoying it just as much on every listen and still hearing something new every time.