The 33 1/3 series from Continuum, each little book dealing with a different author’s favorite record, ranges wildly in quality from tepid to brilliant. Look in the back of one of these books at the list of records they’ve picked, and you will find yourself wondering ‘How did that get in there?’ (Aqualung? Gimme a break.), and just as often you will ask ‘And what about [insert favorite record here]?’ (Blank Generation? Gets Next to You? Love and Theft? Sweet Old World?).
A lot of where the individual books fall on the tepid-to -brilliant scale will have as much to do with your relationship with the record in question as it will with the quality of the opinions in the book. I have some pretty strong and very personal ideas about my own favorite records and generally don’t want them disturbed by some critic— sometimes a critic who wasn’t even born when the record came out—who doesn’t hear those records the same way I do. My favorite records are mine and no one appreciates them quite the way I do. There are also many ways you can ruin a favorite record; overplaying it, finding out it’s the all-time favorite of someone you hate, associating it with some trauma (or a busted romance) that occurred while it was playing (or when it came out), discovering that the artist is a bad person, and on and on.
You have to be careful around the records you love so as not to ruin them for yourself, a care that includes being cautious around what you read about them. Your favorite may never recover after being taken down a peg or three by a really brutal essay, or even a favorable one that distorts or erases your original reasons for loving it. The flip side of this is finding good writing that leads you to appreciate and love records that you have never previously been able to get into. In this I trusted Jonathan Lethem who is true music junky, incorporating music into nearly all his writing and often using a character’s taste in musical as a defining trait.
Lethem’s contribution to the 33 1/3 bookshelf, a quirky book on Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, is obsessive, tense, ambitious, edgy, difficult, overheated, experimental, overreaching, complex, strange, ambiguous, prolix, over-intellectualized, funky and grating. And funny. Just like the record.
I overlooked Fear of Music, the Heads third album when it came out, listening to it a few times and filing it away, shrugging it off as slightly dull and literal-minded, even though I was a huge fan of the Heads’ enthralling first two records. There was lots of interesting, challenging music coming out in 1979—London Calling, Armed Forces, Tales of Captain Black, Squeezing Out Sparks, Dub Housing, Metal Box, Off the Wall, 154, Pretenders, Broken English, Lenox Avenue Breakdown — and there wasn’t always time to listen carefully to it all. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. (Side note: The Song of Year at the Grammys in that incredible year of revolutionary music? “I Love You Just the Way You Are,” of all things, that plaint of condescension disguised as bathos inflicted on an unsuspecting world by the dreaded Billy Joel.) Over the intervening years when I’ve been in the mood for Talking Heads I’ve tended to reach for More Songs About Buildings and Food—such an extraordinary creative leap from the first album that I often think there must be a missing second album in there somewhere that I’ve forgotten about—or Remain In Light, their African-music-inspired, transcendent masterpiece. Lethem’s little book led me back to Fear of Music and helped shape an unexpected reappraisal of it. It still sounds transitional to me and far less adventurous than what followed; perhaps it’s simply that the pace of their growth had slowed a bit, but I can safely say I’ve heard it with different, more-informed ears than before and my appreciation of it has grown concomitantly.
Lethem, who apparently can do anything with prose, has structured his Fear of Music in chapters that alternate between commenting on the individual songs and chapters whose headings ask questions both large and small (“Is Fear of Music an Asperger’s Record,” “Is Fear of Music a Text?” and “So Fear of Music is a Concept Album. What Happens on Side Two?”), more or less jumping back and forth between straight commentary and wild flights of critical fancy. Here’s an example of how he writes about the band that advised its audience to ’Stop Making Sense’:
‘I Zimbra’ tried an end run. The song outlined a preemptive workaround to the album’s claustrophobic consciousness and the various discontents trapped within. Its readymade claim is that the whole problem, the only problem, is that words fail. Simultaneously, ‘I Zimbra’ presented the freeze-dried, just-add-rhythm solution: freedom from self. The rest of Side One remorselessly, meticulously and exuberantly exposes this too-neat attempt. First, by dragging words into worlds. Yep, they fail all right, but we live inside those crumbling premises. And: we fail too. And more: we’re never less free from ourselves than precisely in the act of failing—at the party, in flight from native habitat, or in vigilant, restless sleep—to free ourselves.
Free no mind and no ass may follow.
I could give you more context on this but, believe me, it wouldn’t help. But read in terms of listening to the Heads obsessively, which Lethem, and I, have obviously done periodically over the years, it begins to make its own sense—just like Fear of Music—and that’s where the genius of this book lies. Lethem’s Fear of Music parallels the ‘consciousness’ of Talking Heads’ Fear of Music exactly—if a record can possess a consciousness of its own and after reading this you will believe it can. This book, of course, couldn’t exist without the record but you may wonder, while reading the book, can the record continue to exist, unchanged, without the book? Such is Lethem’s talent as writer and an analytical and creative thinker; he has invented a style to suit the music he is writing about and, while he was at it, created a little masterpiece of music writing–an example of how it should be done. He’s also brought Fear of Music back to me after all that time and it’s like discovering a new album from the World’s Best Band, which they were for a brief moment, at the height of their powers.
Filed under: Byron Spooner