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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, is the fourth album from Talking Heads. Its 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.

A radical departure from Talking Heads' previous albums, Remain in Light combined the band's signature Post-Punk and New Wave Music riffs with dense polyrhythms inspired by Nigerian Afrobeat artist Fela Kuti. This effective combination of widely disparate sounds garnered downright rapturous critical acclaim for Talking Heads, who had already been critical darlings before that point. 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 Music— which became looser and more open to African and other "ethnic" influences post-Remain in Light & Melt. While Melt was the album that first established the idea that this kind of combination was just as artistically capable as prior western music, Remain in Light was the album that galvanized it, bringing worldbeat into even greater prominence and strengthening the backbone that allowed it to become a dominant force in mainstream music for the first half of the 80's.


While it wasn't as successful as the band's earlier and later albums, it is generally considered their studio masterpiecenote  and one of the greatest albums of the 1980's— if not all time; the album was listed at #129 in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (which jumped to #39 in the 2020 update), at #54 on NME's list of the same name, and is currently the 34th-most-acclaimed album ever according to Acclaimed Music's compilation of various critics' lists. In 2017 the album was inducted into the National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically, or artistically significant." The album was also certified gold (sales of over 500,000 copies) by the RIAA. Even only a few years after its release, Remain in Light was so critically acclaimed that it was among the first titles available in the U.S. on CD when the format was launched there in 1983.


Remain in Light produced a single, "Once in a Lifetime", that didn't set the world on fire. Within a couple years, however, it had become one of the band's signature songs, due in part to its Surreal Music Video, which got heavy rotation on the fledgling network MTV. The album was also supported by single releases of "Crosseyed and Painless" (released only in Germany and Mexico), "Houses in Motion", and "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)" (released only in Japan).


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.
  • 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.
  • Cover Version:
    • Phish has covered the album in concert.
    • Angélique Kidjo released a cover of the entire album in 2018 that more prominently emphasized the songs' African influences; according to her, the idea to do so was born out of her own immediate recognition of the songs as afrobeat back when the Talking Heads version was first released and her feelings of encouragement by the band's homage to the genre.
    • Peter Gabriel covered "Listening Wind" for his Scratch My Back album (Byrne returned the favor with a cover of "I Don't Remember" on And I'll Scratch Yours).
    • A Certain Ratio covered "Houses in Motion".
  • Darker and Edgier: Remain in Light is even dourer 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. 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. 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.
  • Distinct Single Album: 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.
  • 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."
  • Guest Star:
    • 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 and guitar synth parts to the album, most notably with the wailing interludes on "The Great Curve". 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. The whole album was influenced by his sound.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: The line, "A condition of mercy" in "The Overload" echoes the phrase, "the quality of mercy" from The Merchant of Venice.
  • 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 antihero 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, both released in 1980, are generally considered the point where world music influence began to permeate mainstream rock music. This trend would arguably 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


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