Graded on a Curve:
Talking Heads,
Naked

I’ve often wondered why I turned my fickle back on the Talking Heads and now I have the answer: Naked. Listening to this 1988 studio LP (their last) for the first time in decades reminds me of what a bad taste it left in my ears, convincing me that David Byrne and Company, who’d brought me so much pleasure over the years, had nothing more to offer.

Naked is not a total waste of perfectly good vinyl by any means, but it has huge problems, the biggest of which is that it’s–how to best say this?–boring. Only one song–the cosmic ecological disaster comedy “(Nothing But) Flowers”–holds its own against the best of the Talking Heads’ earlier work, and it’s a sunny outlier on this anything but perky LP.

Say what you will about such semi-dirges as “The Democratic Circus,” “The Facts of Life,” and “Mommy Daddy You and I,” they don’t exactly boast enraptured melodies that suck me in. In fact they push me away, and the same goes for “Sax and Violins” (a bad pun, David? Really?) and “Cool Water,” which is anything but a long tall glass of. As for the very moribund “Bill,” it makes me want to shoot my eye out with a bb gun. Anything to remind myself I’m alive, you know?

No, no matter how you spin it, Naked’s a bummer. Sure you get a lot of nice textures and what not, but what I always liked most about our David was his demented energy. Whether he was playing the hilarious paranoid of the early albums (Fear of Music may be the greatest comedy record ever) or the wild-eyed mystic of Remain in Light, Byrne was always spastic electric, an articulate twitch with his nerves on the wrong side of his skin.

But Byrne gave up on the funk and went into a funk on Naked, and it tells. Why, the man sounds like he’s in the middle of a communication breakdown, and simply can’t be bothered to make people dance. Or smile even.

Byrne’s only angle (he always has an angle) involved adorning some of these songs with horn sections, but the whole big band thing strikes me as less vital ingredient than dressing. His going the Chicago route works (to a degree) on “Blind,” but what really pushes the song across the finish line are the cool polyrhythms and Byrne’s sly vocals. On the other hand, neither horns nor polyrhythms distract me from the disheartening fact that “Mr. Jones” is, well, dull. And you can supersize that emotion on the enervating “Big Daddy,” which makes me want to take a long nap.

And to make things worse, the more spritely numbers don’t bowl me over either; they sound both half-formed and half-baked, and lack the loopy energy of songs like “Once in a Lifetime.” “Totally Nude” is a perky enough tune, but it skips by unnoticed–I can tell you that Byrne is singing about nature boys, but I’ll be damned if I can remember how the song goes after it’s over. And take away its cool Bo Diddley beat and Johnny Marr’s guitar and “Ruby Dear” would make no impression on me at all.

Remain in Light changed the world, and while I hardly noticed it at the time it was all downhill from there. The band’s decline in most clearly discernible in hindsight; 1983’s Speaking in Tongues was great but no Remain in Light, while 1985’s Little Creatures–which marked a radical departure from the world music that made the band’s two previous LP’s so revolutionary–was the first of the band’s LPs that I didn’t find absolutely essential.

Then came 1986’s True Stories–which I wrote off as a soundtrack, cuz that’s what it was–and Naked, on which David Byrne sounded not just glum, but tired of rock’n’roll. And as his subsequent solo career proved, he was. I just wish he hadn’t taken the Talking Heads, who produced some of the most exciting and innovate music of the late seventies and early eighties, out on this sour note. Naked’s a drag, and one damn sorry waste of Johnny Marr.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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