And lo, it was written that white men could not jump, nor dance, nor ever have any knowledge of The Funk. And the Lord spake: “There shall be one among you with a nervous mind and prodigious talent, and he shall lie down with a domed magician, and they shall beget fine art-punk.”
That (more or less) is how the Talking Heads produced their second album, and managed to zing the dreaded curse of the “sophomore slump” while doing so. More Songs About Buildings and Food had a title to match David Byrne’s equally smart and cheeky lyrics, and picked up musically where the Heads left off on their debut the year before. Talking Heads: 77‘s paranoid confessions and neurotic love songs had caught on with a minority audience, but one fan in particular would actually change the band’s sound on their return to the studio.
The fan in question, of course, was His Bald Majesty of Ambience and Weirdness, Brian Eno. No surprise that he and Byrne quickly hit it off; both were quirky artistes in their own right with mutual interests in music. Eventually, they would frolic hand-in-hand through a meadow of tribal rhythms and world beat experimentalism in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, as well as subsequent Heads records. Unfortunately, this collaboration would end two albums down the road due to creative strains and power plays, but Buildings and Food is the first to bear its deliciously funky fruit.
Rhythm duo Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz become a focal point for the band, playing opposite Byrne’s jittery inflections with galloping layers of riffage, as they do on “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel.” It’s the perfect opener, an epic, light-hearted assault to get your feet stompin’ and set the mood for the rest of the album. Byrne is at his most upbeat here, in love with the (almost) perfect woman: “Oh, baby you can walk, you can talk just like me/ With a little practice, you can walk like, talk just like me.”
But the dark clouds that are hinted at in between the lines of “Angel” gather in full force on “With Our Love,” a dark, hypnotic tale about fear and love—the subject of more than a few Heads songs, actually. Chicken-scratch guitar work wriggles through Byrne’s tense vocals, which begin to sound more like nervous asides delivered from a therapist’s couch. That style bleeds straight into “The Good Thing,” with its strange, cacophonous chorus that reads like a chapter on marital dysfunction from Dianetics:
“As the heart finds the good thing, the feeling is multiplied. Add the will to the strength, and it equals conviction. As we economize, efficiency is multiplied.”
It’s hard to imagine Byrne impressing any woman with a serenade—but who could resist the dancey breakdown capping off this song?
There’s a humor—one suspects self-deprecation—running throughout the album, and listening to Byrne’s frantic come-ons in “Warning Sign” will lift a chuckle from anyone familiar with a “crashing and burning” sensation when conversing with the opposite sex. (“…It’s a natural thing, and you have to relax. I’ve got money now, I’ve got money now…C’mon baby! C’mon baby!“) “The Girls Want to be with the Girls,” “Found a Job,” and “Artists Only” all continue the trend while also dashing inhibitions, transforming you from placid art-rock fan to tuchus-shaking funkopotamus in just under ten minutes.
It’s the album closers, an Al Green cover (“Take Me to the River“) and a scathing jab at the heartland (“The Big Country”) that this album is remembered most for. “River” especially gave the Heads something close to straightforward pop—in other words, something more “normal”—to catch on the ears of mainstream listeners. It brewed a buzz-worthy storm that left hungry music fans in its wake, and when they released 1980’s Remain in Light, they gained the necessary exposure to establish a legacy.