Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads Box Set (Rhino)

talking-heads-once-in-a-lifetimeIncluded in the elaborate artwork for Talking Heads’s recent box set, Once in a Lifetime, is a page of David Byrne’s notes for possible songs. Typed in all capital letters is his idea for one song: “MY ATTEMPTS TO BE AMERICAN.” Byrne, born in Scotland and raised in Canada, was an alien in the US. He was also an alien at art school: the Rhode Island School of Design. There he met Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, but he left RISD before graduating (Weymouth and Frantz completed their degrees). Byrne lived briefly in Baltimore and San Francisco before returning to Providence (where he formed the Artistics with Frantz) and then to New York.

Throughout Byrne’s lyrics the sense of alienation and transience is palpable. It’s as though he never thought he belonged anywhere. Even in the band’s music–which began as minimal bass, drums, and guitar and graduated to big band jazz, world music, and broader experimentation–the band kept on the move. Magnificently, the band never sounded lost. Their curious nature adopted their influences into their own family. Despite Byrne’s repeated assertions of homelessness, he and Talking Heads were quintessentially American–an analog of America’s restless, free spirit.

The theme of alienation reared its head early in Talking Heads’ career with the single, “Psycho Killer.” Released at the time of the Son of Sam killings, the song begins with the detached line “I can’t seem to face up to the facts.” It set a haunting precedent for a band who would soon be called “the Beatles of the New Wave.” With its pulsating bass and thin, shivering guitars, the song also established the Heads’ sound. That sound would evolve to include new influences and more than a few new band members but for the lifetime of the band, it stood in stark contrast to the macho, messy guitars of the punk scene which birthed them.

Talking Heads first album, Talking Heads ’77, also included the cold but enchanting “Don’t Worry About the Government.” “I pick the building that I want to live in,” Byrne sings in his most Howard Roark moment. Like most of their material, the lyrics, melodies, and voice trade moments of chilled declaration (“Some civil servants are just like my loved ones”) with touching warmth and humor. The song’s chorus is a triumph of pop music humanism even as its theme reinforces the narrator’s alienation from the nature he lovingly describes in the first verse–“My building has every convenience! It’s going to make life easy for me!”

Once in a Lifetime, a 3 CD and 1 DVD box set, has collected these moments of isolation and joy, alienation and warmth, into a retrospective worthy of the Heads’ career. Another song on disc one (which covers their early work) is “The Big Country”–a song that expands on the alienation of “Don’t Worry About The Government.” In it, Byrne methodically and beautifully describes “flyover” country, then rejects it: “I wouldn’t live there, if you paid me to.” This is no indictment of the countryside he describes, more like a personal flaw he’s detected in himself. All this is conveyed with warm bass, acoustic guitar, workman-like drums and a lap steel–the traditional accompaniment of a country song.

Lest one believe Talking Heads were all detached irony and urbane apathy, there is a deep vein of humor running through their work. They were as amused as they were serious about their exploration. No place is this more evident than in their music videos–compiled on the Storytelling Giants DVD included in Once in a Lifetime.

For all its antsy, annoying content, the video for “Once in a Lifetime” is extremely silly. Its rudimentarily-cloned Byrnes are part pop-art, part Monty Python. The video for the infectious “Wild Wild Life” stars a young John Goodman as an over-eager lounge singer. “Stay Up Late” features the band members in harnesses on cables being bounced, swung, and dropped. It’s the kind of simple, ridiculous video concept that simply doesn’t get made anymore. Talking Heads undoubtedly knew that the medium was headed into sexier and more serious territory and that they, as a band constantly in danger of being taken too seriously, needed to run in the other direction.

Decisions like those made Talking Heads always seem to be adults. There was no ugly growth spurt for them. From their first utterances to their reunion at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame last year, they were a band of extreme maturity, civility, and grace. Even at the height of their supposed acrimony in 1992, the band still spoke of each other with complete respect in the liner notes to Sand in the Vaseline–a sort-of greatest hits package released that year. This perpetual adulthood surely adds to their legacy. Their alienation was never petulant; their humor never puerile.

In the band’s twilight years, excerpted on the third disc here, we find a candid joy. More than any other element, Talking Heads’ capacity for expressing joy separates them from their predecessors, their contemporaries, and their successors. The ability to evoke this feeling is a mark of their adulthood. Young bands rarely enjoy their youth. The Heads surely enjoyed their age.

“And She Was” is merely a song about a girl who did LSD and imagined herself floating over factories and suburbs, but the band’s bright sounds and Byrne’s ascendant melody left the song’s subject matter far below reach. “Stay Up Late” is, for lack of any better term, the cutest song you can listen to without tasting saccharine. With another simple subject–keeping a baby up late–Byrne makes domesticity anthemic.

In the set’s generous liner notes, photographer Kyoichi Tsuzuki writes: “Listening to Talking Heads again now after so many years, the music sounds ‘normal.’ Neither conceptual nor especially ‘cutting-edge’ tricky, but by no means banal either.” As this deserved retrospective demonstrates, Talking Heads’ music may be part of our pop vocabulary now, but it is still virtually boundless. Each disc buries something to be discovered; each video, something to intrigue; and each facet of the band, something else to learn.

As communism’s last gray stand withered across Eastern Europe, Talking Heads created music with more color and life than most imagine possible. It’s no accident that they lived in America. Byrne may never have felt he belonged, but his music bustled with the ideology of America–explorative, free, and unprejudiced.