Even if it wasn’t constructed from all the tension Talking Heads managed, Fear of Music is a brilliant name for an album. More often than not people are genuinely afraid of music they are unfamiliar with. Actually, it may be better said that for some, familiarity is the basis of enjoyment. Fear of Music isn’t just a caustic title, it’s a condition.
So it’s tough when you come across an album like Fear of Music. Menacing to the extent that it almost spins uncomfortably. Choked by the staccato attack of the guitars, buried beneath the processed rhythms of Chris Franz and sinister bass of Tina Weymouth. It claims that it ain’t no disco, but it probably is. It’s just that the discotheque closed hours ago; the after party has ended, and all you’re left with is contemplating how disturbing the smell of the city is while the sun rises.
Robert Christgau called the “gritty weirdness ” of the album “narrow.” I don’t disagree. It’s a benefit and not a fault. I think it hones in on something. It doesn’t ignore reality, so much as whittle it away into some aspect of its essence. The sense of urban decay epitomized in ‘Cities’ and dissociative ‘Life During War Time’ is just one of the textures woven through the record. The most immediately tangible threads of the pervading alienation and anxiety stitched between its dead wax.
The warped calypso punk of 77 and jittering More Songs About Buildings and Food fuse with a growing devotion to West African poly rhythms and post-production. Given the technological advancements in signal processing and recording that have taken place since creating this album, it’s a mark of astonishing foresight that this album has aged so well. Though the production may seem comparably primitive, it’s a benefit to an album so primal.
Many call the album transitional – an easy term to toss around when you know where the transition is heading. Doubtful the band did, or their producer/fifth beatle Brian Eno. Certainly the team would go on to create two phylum defining classics – 1980’s Remain in Light and Byrne/Eno’s 1981 My Life in the Bush of Ghosts – but not before they entered the studio in 1979. The result would make the nervous and staggering ‘Psycho Killer’ seem like Juicyfruit. Where as ‘Psycho Killer’ presents us with a delinquent fantasy, ‘Life During War Time’ presents us with a violent reality.
I remember being in college (a feat in itself ) riding the subway, slowly coming to realize the humor of the album. With lines like “This isn’t what you hoped for, is it?” and songs like ‘Animals’; its down right funny.
Maybe it is “paranoid little rants”, but Fear of Music wants nothing to do with your comfort; it wants a report on how unsafe you already are – it wants to confirm your paranoia. As Jonathan Lethem writes in his passionate 331/3 deconstruction of the record: “Whoever knows fear burns at Fear of Music‘s touch.”