Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues consolidated their position as an era-defining act of alternative America
Original release date: 11 June, 1983
Label: Sire Records
What do you do after a 10? Your last album was so mercurial it exists totally in its own bracket, scaling a mountain entirely of its own making. You’re not just in line with the sound of the era – you are the era. When it came to Talking Heads in the wake of Remain In Light, they waited patiently at the peak, but nobody came up after them. So they sent down a second shout, just to be sure.
Speaking In Tongues is not the greatest Talking Heads record. But it is the one that strengthened their position, a bridge that fittingly crossed over. From 1977 to 1980, they had been at the eye of a New York storm, adroitly synergising the mutations of punk, post-punk, no wave, electro, hip-hop and funk. From 1985 to 1988, they mellowed out and wound down.
Speaking In Tongues scratched the paranoid itch of their first juncture with a cleaner, poppier second act.
Without it, the image of Talking Heads we accept as truth today – unquestionable Hall of Famers, with attendant Big Suits and Kermit the Frog covers – would likely not exist. It’s eminently possible they would be an XTC or an ESG: cult heroes, but not quite intergenerational household names. Time has smoothened their trajectory, but Remain In Light actually underperformed, a critical darling with singles that failed to catch alight. So they took a breather. David Byrne carried on his fourth-world explorations with Eno on My Life In the Bush of Ghosts, Tina Weymouth fronted Tom Tom Club and Chris Frantz laid down drums for Kurtis Blow.
When Speaking In Tongues landed in July of 1983, it brought career-best sales and chart placings. Burning Down the House still remains their only top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Once In a Lifetime only charted five years after release. Musically, it tied together everything the group had done up to that point. The sensory circuit-jamming on Fear of Music and Remain In Light is largely gone: guitar riffs and synth runs are as good as ever, but are given time to stretch their legs. Drums clatter about without a bevy of counter-rhythms fighting for space. Byrne, ever the glutton, only chews through one vocal hook at a time. The parts, once loose and jittery, are bolted into place for casual listeners to locate.
Shorn of tracks of genuine terror (Air) or bleakness (Listening Wind) that the band could pull off, it’s a more homogenous front-to-back listen, but a more widely permutable one. For a modern equivalent, think of Arcade Fire circa Reflektor: the defining big-league indie weirdos of the day shoot for radio dominance (Reflektor), sneak a timeless fan favourite into the very backend (Afterlife) and generally consolidate gains. A moment to stop and smell the roses, even if the competition gets a chance to overtake.
Crucially, Tongues set the stage for one of the greatest sets of all time. Stop Making Sense, arriving as a film and live LP the following spring, put faces to the names churning out these earworms. It also had the misfortune of one-upping Tongues, to an extent. Girlfriend Is Better, whose flatulent bassline and quicksilver fretwork go from great to explosive in concert, suffers on playback. Same too with the loved-up This Must Be the Place – though arguably Talking Heads’ greatest song, it’s still hard to not feel a mite crestfallen when the studio version doesn’t end with synchronised coos and rapturous applause.
Together, though, Stop Making Sense and Speaking In Tongues worked as an immensely effective two-pronged attack on the hearts and minds of mid-80s America. In January ‘83, the average person on any street outside the Tri-state area would have struggled to pick Byrne out of a line-up. By January ‘85, their infamy – and their legacy – was a lock.
From there, the band retreated from the avant-garde. There were memorable singles to come but they embraced the ‘new wave’ tag too handily. Once you could pin down these Flippy Floppy Slippery People, they were no longer untouchable. Speaking In Tongues, where they fastened back together after time apart, was their last landmark album before a slow ungluing. Viewing it today as less of an isolated statement, but part of a wider arc, is a reminder of Talking Heads’ unshakable position as one of the greatest bands ever. How nice we get to share the same space for a lifetime or two.