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Music / Remain in Light

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And you may ask yourself,
"Well, how did I get here?"

"Remain in Light really knocked me out with all the cross-rhythms. The bass never seems to come in where you'd expect it. [...] You could always tell with this band that they weren't writing to be commercial— they were just doing the music that they really felt. There was something incredibly spontaneous about them."

Remain in Light, released in 1980 through Sire Records, is the fourth album by American rock band Talking Heads. It was their third and final album to be produced by Brian Eno, after More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music. Eno split with the group as a result of the album's Troubled Production and disagreements with frontman David Byrne about their solo project My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (which was produced earlier but released a year later).

Born out of a desire to challenge Talking Heads' image as a vehicle for David Byrne, the album marked a radical departure from the band's previous albums, combining the band's signature Post-Punk and New Wave Music riffs with dense polyrhythms inspired by Nigerian Afrobeat artist Fela Kuti. The choice in sound primarily came from bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer/husband Chris Franz, who were growing irritated with Byrne's control of the band yet couldn't agree on what to do about it. Traveling to the Caribbean to think the matter over, they grew interested in the reggae scene there and came up with the idea of producing more collaborative music (after three albums near-unilaterally written by Byrne) rooted in Black musical styles not covered by mainstream rock. At the same time, the mainstream rise of Hip-Hop made the band members realize that the landscape of popular music was about to change dramatically, encouraging them to adapt sooner than later through this internationally inspired approach.

To consolidate their shift in style, the band brought aboard a large number of session musicians experienced in funk, Afrobeat's mother genre, and/or Avant-Garde Music, with the latter category including guitarist and future King Crimson frontman Adrian Belew (previously known for his work with Frank Zappa and David Bowie) and trumpeter Jon Hassell. The album's material was recorded through improvisational jam sessions, emphasizing serendipitous songwriting that built off of mistakes following a comment from personal friend David Gans that "the things one doesn't intend are the seeds for a more interesting future." This approach extended to Byrne's lyrics as well, as he developed vocal melodies through scatting before constructing stream-of-consciousness lyrics based on both his own struggles with writer's block at the time and Eno's belief that lyrics were not as important to a song's meaning as laypeople like to believe (which had previously informed the found audio vocals on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts).

Along with Peter Gabriel's Melt, released earlier that same year, Remain in Light marked a change in direction for popular music — especially new wave — which became looser and more open to African and other "ethnic" influences. This would most prominently manifest throughout the decade in the form of worldbeat, which mixed rock with musical styles from Sub-Saharan Africa; Talking Heads would carry over the style to their next album, Speaking in Tongues, before veering away from it on Little Creatures and True Stories in favor of exploring music from the southern United States. They would ultimately return to a worldbeat sound on Naked, which built off the Tejano influences on True Stories to create a blend of Alternative Rock, Afrobeat, and Latin American music, a mix that would inform much of Byrne's solo career after the band's 1991 breakup.

Remain in Light was supported by three singles: "Once in a Lifetime", "Houses in Motion", and "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)". "Crosseyed and Painless" was also released as a promotional single.


Side One
  1. "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)" (5:46)
  2. "Crosseyed and Painless" (4:45)
  3. "The Great Curve" (6:26)

Side Two

  1. "Once in a Lifetime" (4:19)
  2. "Houses in Motion" (4:30)
  3. "Seen and Not Seen" (3:20)
  4. "Listening Wind" (4:42)
  5. "The Overload" (6:00)note 

Take a look at these tropes!

  • Broken Record: "Crosseyed and Painless" and "Once in a Lifetime" both feature two sections where a single phrase is repeated ad nauseum, those respectively being "I'm still waiting" and "same as it ever was."
  • Call-Back: The line "I'm not a burning building" in "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)" refers to "Love → Building on Fire", Talking Heads' debut single from 1977.
  • Changed for the Video:
    • The video for "Once in a Lifetime" omits the song's bridge (the "water at the bottom of the ocean" part).
    • "Crosseyed and Painless" is also subject to this: Byrne's rap bridge is drawn out for much longer in the music video, continuing through the outro and featuring extra lyrics not present in the album version; these extra lyrics were also featured in live performances during the album's tour as well as in the album's liner notes.
  • Concept Video: "Crosseyed and Painless" has one, featuring real street dancers miming scenes of hustling, knife crime, posing, body popping, solicitation, and street fighting. Like the video for "Once in a Lifetime", it was directed and choreographed by Toni Basil, who would later have a hit with "Mickey". Notably, the band is completely absent from the music video, at David Byrne's request.
  • Darker and Edgier: Remain in Light is even more this than the already anxiety-inducing Fear of Music, featuring songs about government corruption, mid-life crises, anti-Western terrorism, and homelessness, among other cheery subjects.note  It's only fitting that closer "The Overload" is a pastiche of the frighteningly depressing Joy Division.
  • Design Student's Orgasm: The cover with the band members' faces covered in splotches of digital ink was an early example of digital photo manipulation, produced with the aid of Walter Bender and the ArcMac team (now the MIT Media Lab) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The inner sleeve features a negative version of the front cover. While it can look crude to modern eyes, the crudeness nonetheless adds to its unsettling tone and eye-catching visuals. Bender also superimposed the images of the planes over a solarized picture of the Himalayas for the back cover.
  • Digital Destruction:
    • The original CD booklet was missing the red outline of the planes on the back cover from the LP inner sleeve in the stylized album credits as well as the negative version of the front cover.
    • European CDs vary based on when they came out; releases in the format before the mid-'90s master side one much louder than side two, while CDs since the mid-'90s use a new mastering of the album that fixes the volume imbalance, but inexplicably swaps the stereo channels and cuts off high frequencies.
  • Distinct Double Album: A single-album variant. Side one features more rhythmically focused songs with dense, compartmentalized structures that gradually overlap one another and long instrumental interludes, while side two features more introspective and lyrically focused songs.
  • Downer Ending: The album closes with "The Overload", a haunting, brooding Joy Division pastiche about mental collapse—with the overall theme of the album being about a man struggling to remain sane, putting this song at the end makes it clear his efforts fail and he suffered a full mental breakdown.
  • Drone of Dread: "The Overload" has this.
  • Epic Rocking: "The Great Curve" and "The Overload" are over six minutes long, and "Born Under Punches" is 5:50. "The Great Curve" particularly stands out for being Talking Heads' longest studio song ever, at 6:26.
  • Face on the Cover: Headshots of the band members, but with their faces obscured by digital blotches of red ink.
  • Funk: A major influence on this album, particularly in its basslines and drum patterns.
  • Genre Mashup: The album's overarching blend of Post-Punk and Afrobeat was its claim to fame.
  • Gratuitous Panning: The congas in "The Great Curve" bounce between speakers for the duration of the song.
  • God-Is-Love Songs: "The Great Curve" is about an immense divine feminine figure who "loves the world, and all the people in it."
  • Hollywood Mid-Life Crisis: Word of God states that "Once in a Lifetime" is about the mentality that leads to one, which frankly makes the lyrics much more coherent.
  • Humanshifting: "Seen and Not Seen" is a quirky, somewhat paranoid take on the subject, in which a man slowly morphs the shape of his face through sheer force of will to match images in popular media.
  • Important Haircut: Inverted with Tina Weymouth, who played this trope straight on joining the band on Byrne's suggestion, but grew out her hair for this album, coinciding with a major change in the band's style.
  • In the Style of:
    • "The Overload" was intended to sound like Joy Division, but they hadn't actually heard the band (in part due to the fact that Factory Records didn't have an official US distribution arm when the song was produced; Factory US wouldn't open until the month of the album's release) and based the sound on press clippings. It actually was pretty close to how Joy Division actually sounded, though more like slower tracks like "I Remember Nothing" or "In a Lonely Place" rather than "Love Will Tear Us Apart" or "She's Lost Control".note 
    • The grooves were heavily influenced by Fela Kuti.
  • Musical Squares: The cover has photos of the four members arranged on a grid, with their faces digitally painted red.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: "Once in a Lifetime" is the Trope Namer. The final verse ends with the line "And you may say to yourself 'My God, what have I done?'", referencing the fact that the subject of the song ("you") may have obtained your "large automobile" and your "beautiful house/wife," but you wasted your life in the process, slaving away to obtain your expensive possessions instead of taking the time to enjoy what you already have.
  • Nerd Glasses: Byrne wears them in the video for "Once in a Lifetime"; he would later bring them back for live performances of the song on the Speaking in Tongues tour, as captured in Stop Making Sense.
  • New Sound Album: While "I Zimbra" from Fear of Music was a small experiment in afrobeat, Remain in Light threw the band into the genre whole-hog. Byrne acknowledged this at the first concert appearance of the expanded lineup, saying "We don't sound like we used to."
  • Nothing but Skin and Bones: "I'm so thin... I'm too thin," from "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)".
  • Post-Rock: "Seen and Not Seen" is an odd Ur-Example, presaging the "monotone spoken-word mumbling over droning instrumentals" variety that Slint would pioneer with Spiderland more than a decade later.
  • Progressive Rock: While not exactly progressive rock, this album has been cited as a major influence on "post-progressive" and it's the band's highest-rated album on Prog Archives, who lists the band as "prog-related."
  • Rearrange the Song: Live versions of the songs on this album were made even funkier in concert, as the The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads live album attests. "Crosseyed and Painless" had a slower intro before launching into the song, repeated in a modified form for the Speaking in Tongues tour (as heard in Stop Making Sense). The band's older songs were similarly given funk rearrangements on both tours, setting a precedent that Byrne would carry into his solo tours, in which legacy songs (from both the Talking Heads catalog and his previous solo output) would be arranged to match his most recent studio album at the time.
  • Record Producer: Brian Eno; the last entry in the trilogy of their albums he produced.
  • Re-Cut:
    • 8-track releases alter the running order to account for the limitations of the four-program format. On such versions, the tracklist goes "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)", "Once in a Lifetime", "Seen and Not Seen", "The Great Curve", "Crosseyed and Painless", "The Overload", "Listening Wind", and "Houses in Motion". Additionally, "The Overload" is split into two parts, both due to its length and due to it overlapping with the changeover between programs three and four.
    • On the UK cassette release, "Seen and Not Seen" is moved to the end of side one to even out the lengths of the two sides.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The line "The center is missing" from "The Overload" echoes "The center cannot hold" from W. B. Yeats' "The Second Coming".
    • The repeating synth riff in "Once in a Lifetime" is reminiscent of Philip Glass. The Hammond organ part in the climax is based on "What Goes On" by The Velvet Underground.
    • The rap bridge in "Crosseyed and Painless" is an homage to old-school hip-hop, particularly Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks", which Chris Frantz played drums on.
    • The outtake "Fela's Riff" is an obvious shout-out to Fela Kuti, who was a major influence on the album.
    • The line, "A condition of mercy," in "The Overload" echoes the phrase, "the quality of mercy," from The Merchant of Venice.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The album is celebrated for this. A lot of the lyrics are about dark or disturbing emotions, but the music is funky, Afrobeat-influenced and highly infectious, even at times joyous. One musician fan of theirs said that the great thing about Talking Heads was that they were able to be anxious and calm at the same time, and this album is perhaps the best illustration of that.
  • Special Guest:
    • Robert Palmer contributed percussion to the sessions, returning the favor for Chris Frantz playing drums on his album Clues.
    • Avant-garde trumpeter and Eno collaborator Jon Hassell played his trademark electronic-infused trumpet on "Houses in Motion".
    • Avant-garde guitarist and Frank Zappa & David Bowie collaborator Adrian Belew contributed guitar parts to the album, most notably with the wailing interludes on "The Great Curve" and his signature "computer guitar" tone on "Born Under Punches".note  Belew also accompanied the band during the album's associated tour and lobbied to become a permanent member of the band (at one point even being encouraged into joining by Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, who considered replacing David Byrne with him). Byrne turned down Belew's offers and Belew turned down Frantz & Weymouth; Belew would ultimately end up fronting the revived King Crimson from 1981 to 2008.
  • Spoken Word in Music: Byrne does this several times throughout the album.
    • In both "Once in a Lifetime" and "Houses in Motion", he preaches during the verses and sings during the choruses.
    • "Seen and Not Seen" has Byrne narrating a short story over a musical backdrop.
  • Surreal Music Video: "Once in a Lifetime" has Byrne performing erratic dances and rituals against a bluescreen, which shifts between a White Void Room, computer-generated water ripples, videos of religious rituals, and multiple duplicates of himself.
  • Uncommon Time: Due to the influence of African music over the album, the songs make heavy use of polyrhythms.
  • Villain Protagonist: "Listening Wind" is about a terrorist who wants to drive Americans out of his unnamed country, although he's portrayed in a somewhat sympathetic light. So, basically an Anti-Villain protagonist, or maybe even an Anti-Hero protagonist depending on one's political sympathies. Worth noting is that Byrne originally envisioned listeners sympathizing with the terrorist, being written out of disdain towards western misconceptions of the postcolonial world.
    "I understand why America is not universally loved. That's been obvious to me for years and years, but it's not obvious to a lot of Americans. Their immediate reaction is, 'They love us, they're just jealous. They just want McDonald's.'"
  • Wall of Text: The inner sleeve credits are printed this way.
  • White Void Room: The video for "Once in a Lifetime" is set almost entirely in one, courtesy of bluescreening.
  • A Wild Rapper Appears!: "Crosseyed and Painless" features a bridge in which David Byrne raps about facts, rattling off multiple supposed attributes of them, many of which are idiosyncratic and contradict one another (i.e. "facts are simple and facts are straight; facts are lazy and facts are late").
  • World Music: This album and Peter Gabriel's Melt, also released in 1980, are generally considered the point where world music influence began to permeate mainstream rock music. This trend would reach its peak in 1986, with the release of Gabriel's So and Paul Simon's Graceland. David Byrne himself would explore the genre more in his solo career and his collaborations with Brian Eno, such as My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

I'm still waiting
Still waiting
Still waiting
Still waiting


Video Example(s):


ENA vs. Talking Heads

Several of ENA's motions in her eponymous webseries are lifted from David Byrne's idiosyncratic dance moves in the music video for Talking Heads' 1980 song "Once in a Lifetime". Shown here is a comparison between the two.

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