Saturday, October 31, 2015

Final Songs: The Overload

A gentle collapsing/The removal of the insides
Album:Remain in Light by Talking Heads
A terrible signal
Too weak to even recognize
A gentle collapsing
The removal of the insides

I'm touched by your pleas
I value these moments
We're order than we realize someone's eyes

A frequent returning
And leaving unnoticed
A condition of mercy
A change in the weather

A view to remember
The center is missing
They question how the future lies someone's eyes
The gentle collapsing
Of every surface
We travel on the quiet road
...the overload

So I'd been thinking a couple of weeks about where next to go with "Final Songs", what would be a good song to sink my teeth into. It occurred to me that I hadn't done anything with Talking Heads. Then earlier today I was listening to one of Charlie Lewis' archived shows on WFMU and this song played. My fate was sealed.

Remain in Light represents the culmination of the band's working partnership with Brian Eno, whom we've covered here before and - who knows? - may do so again. Having produced their previous two albums (More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music) he'd show that he got them in a way that most producers wouldn't. Of course even among the four of them Talking Heads were a volatile set of personalities, so it's not too surprising that the relationship fell apart at some point. What is surprising is that the acrimony that was building didn't really show up on vinyl.

Which isn't to say that there's no tension in the music. The rhythms and textures from other parts of the world work their way in aggressively. Listening to this music can feel like being flown in the middle of the night to what your hosts say is another country but that you suspect is another planet.

It's also a political disc, although not in an obvious, didactic way. David Byrne starts off the album shouting as a paranoid "government man" (on "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On") and another song ("Listening Wind") takes at least an empathetic look at an African terrorist trying to drive Western colonialists out of his land.

On the album's last song, "The Overload", the alien approach to music continues, but in a different way. This does not sound like the funk and African/Caribbean pop that's informed so much of the album up to this point. What does it sound like? Well, your mind dissolving for starters. The story most often told is that Byrne wrote the song after hearing about Manchester postpunk band Joy Division. That's right, hearing about them, but not having actually heard any of their music. The result isn't actually that far off from the real thing, but it does give the band room to improvise, being themselves but in a new role. Byrne doesn't really sound anything like Ian Curtis here. What he does sound is tired and lost.

And there seems to be a political aspect to this song as well. "I'm touched by your pleas. I value these moments." These two lines contain a disturbing juxtaposition. Someone is pleading with him, for mercy, one guesses. ("A condition of mercy." One wonders what condition he's demanding.) Yet he waxes sentimental about valuing the moment. It's the kind of romanticizing that one can apply to one's worst acts after the fact, rendering them more palatable.

So is "The Overload" about torture? It certainly does fit with the title, as torture victims are "overloaded" with pain and fear. It would be reductive, I think, to say it's about that and only that. But the song does intertwine certain signifiers of the act with a vibe that's meditative and, in its dark way, kind of peaceful.

Talking Heads go goth? Oh, it's way more disturbing than that.


susan said...

I hadn't listened to Remain In Light in its entirety for a long time until last night and again this afternoon. It really is amazing and to have four songs as disparate yet complex as The Great Curve (still my favorite), Once in a Lifetime, Listening Wind, and The Overload on the same album and make it work is beyond me. To a large extent the lyrics don't much matter because this is still a rock album in the purest sense.

I agree with your view that this music can feel like being flown in the middle of the night to what your hosts say is another country but that you suspect is another planet. Something I may have realized before and forgot certainly came back to me on re-listening this time. The first three songs are exciting, danceable, heavily-layered synth tunes that flow into one another like some fast moving, bubbling river, carrying the listener swiftly down their rapids. Then Once in a Lifetime signals a change when David Byrne cries out: 'My God! What have I done!' From that point, remaining in light becomes increasingly impossible as the music creeps ever more slowly into a dark and moody landscape of despair and pain.

Listening to the Overload makes me wonder if the title of the album was actually a challenge. They were a group of intellectuals who really didn't like the direction the western world was taking. Perhaps this was their warning to us?

Ben said...

Those four songs are all wonderful in their own way. As is "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)" which kicks off the whole thing. That "Take a look at these hands!" is a real attention getter. The lyrics, I think, were largely added on impulse.

I think you're right that the sequencing of the album matters. Talking Heads were tasting success at this point. They were recording in Bermuda and working with pretty much whoever they wanted, having a good time as musicians. The opening songs reflect this sense of freedom. But they also recognized that there were troubling trends in the world, and this darkness eclipses the light as things go on.

I like the idea of the title as a challenge. "The light" is of course metaphorical. Physically we need some darkness. But yeah, there's a warning to keep your eyes open.