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Feb 01

It’s Nearly Africa

FT3 comments • 3,657 views

An album about identity crisis can’t rely on standard songforms: Byrne uses a cut-up lyrical method, throwing repeated phrases and apparent non-sequiturs around to build up pictures of people and societies on the edge of breakdown. As you listen you start to feel that a curious metaphysics is being preached, with the fluidity and centreless mesh of the music standing in for the ways of thinking needed to break out of Fear Of Music‘s tension trap. Except the tension hasn’t vanished: you dance to Remain In Light in a cold sweat, the grooves are nervy and continually ruptured by blurts of harsh, treated guitars or electronics. You can’t shake the feeling that something has gone terribly wrong.

Remain In Light‘s New York-Africa crossover describes a musical strategy for coping with city paranoia, not a solution. For one thing Byrne’s very aware that international trade, in music as in most other areas, tends to be skewed to the West’s advantage – on “Listening Wind”, the record’s only straightforward song, he sings about Mojique, an African activist who bombs Americans in the “Free Trade Zone”. Lyrically committed but musically flat, “Listening Wind” is by a distance the worst track on a remarkable album, but at least it reminds you that Byrne is romanticising Africa as a place to learn from, not escape to.

Escape, in fact, may not be possible at all. Remain In Light ends on a down note, with “The Overload”. Over wiped out electronics an exhausted Byrne sings about total collapse: “a terrible signal / too weak to even recognise….the center is missing”. It’s a severe but effective end to an album streaked through with a sense of impending catastrophe. Even on “The Great Curve”, the album’s tumbling, euphoric peak, the chorus is singing “Night must fall now – darker, darker”.

So it’s not surprising that “America Is Waiting”, the opening track on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, is also jittery with imminent crisis. “America is waiting for a message of some sort or another”. But there’s a crucial difference in tone. Byrne’s singing on Remain In Light is often heavy with dread – the voices on the first half of Bush Of Ghosts are manic, babbling, approaching the breakdown with apocalyptic glee. Byrne is no longer singing and Bush Of Ghosts’ words are collages made from radio tapes. The center is missing, indeed, but the effect is captivating – an emergency broadcast from the heart of American craziness.

Whether intentionally or not, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts divides fairly neatly into an ‘American side’ and an ‘African side’: the gibbering voices and jerky, propulsive rhythms on the one, and a placid nocturnal drift on the other. The title comes from a novel by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, like Okri’s Famished Road a story about a boy caught in the spirit world.Unaware of the connection between the books when I read Okri’s, it was the recorded Bush Of Ghosts that kept jumping into my mind. The album expands Tutuola’s spirit-world to include the evangelist chatter than clogs the Western psyche, laying exorcisms next to muezzin cries next to talk-show rhetoric.

After fifteen years of sampling culture, juxtapositions like this are nothing new, and it’s a shame that Bush Of Ghosts is so often looked at as a proto-sampling record, a role in which it seems to disappoint. Certainly an audience looking for danceable music – even music as danceable as Remain In Light‘s – would be better off elsewhere. The fuggy lope of “Regiment” aside, these rhythms are either spasmic, or slow and ritualistic, or non-existent. The club music it’s most like is Drum Club-style ethno-ambient trance, though the jabbering samples would itch at the ears mightily if you tried using Bush Of Ghosts as such.

As a companion album to Byrne and Eno’s previous collaborations, though, it’s brilliant. Or at least the first half is, a simple but utterly effective wedding of worldbeat and radio info-OD, culminating in “Help Me Somebody”‘s panicky rush and the spooky funk rite of “The Jezebel Spirit”. The second half strays into more familiar Eno territory and seems to lose its thread: it seems spiritual, but also half-hearted. Generally though Bush Of Ghosts feels like the completion of a trilogy: the paranoia and crises of the Talking Heads’ albums rewritten as a deep, strange dream of Africa.

Byrne’s oblique lyrics and Eno’s mixed-up sounds prevent these three albums from being a straightforward exotica move. Unlike with Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel (or, later, David Byrne) there’s no sense that copying ‘ethnic’ music can make pop – or life – better, there’s just the suggestion that other musics can shed an interesting light on things, that the polyrhythmic beauty of African sounds made more sense, all of a sudden, than rock did, as a way of describing the world.

Fear Of Music, Remain In Light and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts haven’t suffered as much as Simon’s or Gabriel’s records at the hands of reputation, but if their semi-classic status is well-established, they’re still not much talked about. For one thing the idea of any music describing the world is slightly unfashionable. For another, the kind of slightly earnest postmodernism Eno and Byrne went in for – their fetish for the decentred – may stop the albums dating as badly as most social-content pop, but it dates them a little itself, nonetheless.

Similarly, nobody claims Talking Heads as an influence: the art-rock/worldbeat crossover has proved more of a cul-de-sac (perhaps because of its unpunky reliance on highly trained session musicians) than anyone in 1981 could have guessed. For me, though, all three flawed records are thick with interest, and Remain In Light is still the best LP I know for psyching me up to get through city bustle. If pop stars are going to make albums at all, I’d rather they made them as risky, open-ended and fascinating as this.

Comments

  1. 1
    namasaya on 26 Oct 2006 #

    Five years after you wrote this, with the music playing in the background, it made my day. It might be the best thing I’ve ever seen written about Talking Heads. Thank you.

  2. 2
    namasaya on 26 Oct 2006 #

    Oh — one more thing. I found it with a google search for “crosseyed and painless” and “mysticism”. I wonder how often that particular combination has been entered.

  3. 3
    Fastnbulbous on 24 Jun 2008 #

    Nice article. You likely know this by now, but My Life… was actually recorded before Remain In Light. It makes more sense as a sort of warm up to their masterpiece rather than a follow-up. The band supposedly wrote “The Overload” as their concept of what Joy Division might sound like, having not yet actually heard them. “Listening Wind” is by no distance the worst track. It’s freaking eerie and haunting, and just another strong track in a nearly flawless masterpiece.

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