Speaking In Tongues

Talking Heads

Sire, 1983

REVIEW BY: Michael R. Smith

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/15/2009

Steady as she goes. Talking Heads take the safest route in producing their first record themselves, resulting in 1983’s Speaking In Tongues. The quirky, funky style is still intact and the artistic essence is still there, even if it is more “compact” this time around. What makes this something of a transition album is due to the fact that there isn’t as much variation in mood or tempo as on previous efforts. Only the single “Burning Down The House” stands on its own as something that is truly groundbreaking. For such a strange song to have done so well as a pop record must have been a complete surprise to the four band members, not to mention the critics, when it first was released to radio. Even more shocking was when the song’s frightening video clip went into heavy rotation on MTV, bringing Talking Heads wider acclaim in the process.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Things get even more interesting at the halfway point of Speaking In Tongues with the energetic double shot of “Swamp” and “Moon Rocks.” Lead vocalist David Byrne’s maniacal chant of the word “hi” helps to turn “Swamp” into an unexpected thrill ride that is sure to be a crowd-pleaser when performed live. Byrne reaches into a higher register for the positively swooning chorus on “Moon Rocks,” which propels the track to standout status. Unfortunately, things shift back into an all-too-familiar groove for “Pull Up The Roots” and “This Must Be The Place,” both of which sound identical to much of the album’s first half.

Don’t get me wrong, this is consistently pleasing set of tunes in its own right. There aren’t any glaring missteps, but when compared to their first four albums, this material is clearly inferior. David Byrne’s vocal delivery is the most noticeable difference, however, with some tracks not even sounding like him. He is obviously intent on bringing more personality to the forefront with his voice, so in this regard he succeeds. The other members set the pace and tone for these “mood pieces” of theirs, though at times it feels like they are running in place with no clear direction.

These nine tracks are shockingly normal for a band that prides themselves on being so artistic and edgy. Their experimental leanings are fewer and further between on Speaking In Tongues, which is disappointing. It seems they were willing to trade in Brian Eno for something a tad more marketable and radio-worthy. Thankfully, “Burning Down The House” was the one that became a hit, since it maintains TH’s artistic integrity while still having the hooks needed to attract more listeners.

So despite containing many tracks that sound similar, Talking Heads were able to please old and new fans alike with Speaking In Tongues. At least attempting to speak this new Top 40 language didn’t get lost in translation.

Rating: B-

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