By Jim Bloch
I always experienced the Talking Heads 1980 album “Remain in Light” as red hot, a propulsive mix of post-punk, Afro-funk and bandleader David Byrne’s driving offbeat lyrics.
Until I heard Angelique Kidjo, the Benin-born world music star, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the album at the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor, Feb. 16.
Now that was hot — and raw and emotional.
Advertisements - Click the Speaker Icon for Audio
In contrast, the Talking Heads’ record seems intellectual, funky enough, but hyper-cool.
Byrne’s lyrics and his vocal performance of them on the album are an exercise in counterpoint to the music itself, a bass-driven polyrhythmic sound that the Heads adapted from the great Nigerian Afro-beat star Fela Kuti.
Byrne’s words sometimes flow like a stream of consciousness, ironic, critical and philosophical, something he seems to acknowledge in “Once in a Lifetime” with is watery, stream-like refrain: “Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down/letting the days go by/water flowing underground.”
The world he’s singing about is a shape-shifting phantasm, where one’s self and life change mercilessly, resist recognizability and pulse with claustrophobia. The body has lost its permanence.
“I’m so thin,” Byrne sings in “Born Under Punches.” “All I want is to breathe/I’m too thin/Won’t you breathe with me?”
“Lost my shape,” he sings in “Crosseyed and Painless.” “Trying to act casual/Can’t stop — I might end up in the hospital/I’m changing my shape — I feel like an accident.”
The cause of body-strangeness seems to be the lack of political consciousness. The unexamined life, Byrne seems to say, leads to the horror of self-as-alien.
“And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile/And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife/And you may ask yourself — Well, how did I get here?…And you may tell yourself/This is not my beautiful house/And you may tell yourself/this is not my beautiful wife.”
After Kidjo moved from Benin to Paris in 1983 and first heard the landmark album, the African polyrhythms of “Remain in Light” stuck with her. Nigeria, the home of Fela Kuti, is Benin’s immediate neighbor to the east. The album reminded her of home, but it was a home submerged in Talking Heads’ philosophical pretensions and new wave sensibilities.
Where Byrne and producer Brian Eno used Afro-beat as a way to reconfigure new wave music, Kidjo put the sounds of Africa in the foreground, matching her powerful voice. The result is a visceral reimagining of the album, one in which music itself, despite its lyrical meanings, offers a source of joyous self-expression in the face of daily oppression.
“You’ve got an invitation to dance and sing,” Kidjo told the crowd. “Don’t let the chairs fool you!”
Not that Kidjo depoliticizes the messages of Talking Heads. If anything, she deepens them.
War might outweigh love in the history of human society, but everything is backwards, she said. Love is the true fount of human creativity.
“When you love, you feel so free,” Kidjo said. “I want to see us loving more than hating.”
She emphasized the feminine power of Mother Earth and celebrated the power of the feminine underlying “Remain in Light.”
“I want to dedicate this song to Tina Weymouth,” said Kidjo, introducing “The Great Curve.”
We hear a lot about David Byrne and the guys, she said, but it was Weymouth and her bass that gave the band its true funk, its power to move us to sing and dance, its real life.
Next to that, Byrne’s words are chairs, she seemed to say: Don’t be fooled by them.
“The world moves on a woman’s hips/The world moves and bounces and hops,” she sang. “The world moves on a woman’s hips.”