Talking Heads - True Stories
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
True Stories is the most maligned record in Talking Heads' canon. Its only competition, final album Naked, is strange and erratic enough to warrant the occasional rediscovery or fleeting fondness; True Stories, its drum-machine pop even more straightforward than that of its regressive predecessor Little Creatures, is easier to peg and thus easier to dismiss.
The film it half-soundtracks, David Byrne's shiveringly open-hearted chronicle of a Texas town, remains one of the softest collections of moments in American cinema—a work unfortunately so tender as to be chameleonic, quietly absorbing and reflecting the condescension of the reviewers who blamed it on Byrne. Most songs in True Stories were given not to the band but to the actors themselves—a group of windswept children here; a younger, svelter John Goodman there—and what the singers lacked in skill they made up for with the ineffable rightness of their placement: when the children wander through an empty lot, banging woodblocks and singing messily of strip-mall desire, it's no more incongruous than when a long-anticipated Goodman takes the stage in a blue cowboy suit and belts "People Like Us."
But you won't hear Goodman, or the little kids—or even Pops Staples, for whom you'd think room could have been made—on the album: all the film's songs were rerecorded by Talking Heads, the twinkling vocal spectrum collapsed into David Byrne's nervous yelp. In places this forces genuine reinterpretation—replacing Staples' loose sigh with Byrne's thin, shivering croon turns "Papa Legba"'s ease into paranoia much as replacing Al Green with the same once did to "Take Me to the River"—but many of the tracks suffer from the flaw even the album's staunchest defenders must acknowledge: these songs weren't written for this singer, and he sounds lost inside them. With the exceptions of "Wild Wild Life" and "Love for Sale," two serviceable rock songs for which both Byrne and the Heads sound too big, most tracks on True Stories balloon flabbily around their vocalist, suits too big even for David Byrne.
But these are nice suits. In the ostentatious disappointment that is late-period Talking Heads, when the complexity of Remain in Light and the Brobdignagian grooves of Speaking in Tongues are thrown out in favor of 4/4 time and obvious choruses, it's easy to miss the maturation amidst the simplicity: in "Dream Operator," the man whose bed was once afire sings a lullaby; in "City of Dreams," the band that once sneered at the big country is so overwhelmed they can only play a sappy ballad and say goofy things like "the dinosaurs did a dance." Few songs know as well how it feels to be reminded of history.
The album, like the film, is about dreams in more than repeated name; witness how "Puzzlin' Evidence," a delirious landscape of conspiracy through which a confident John Ingle once strode, is as inhospitable to Byrne as any nightmare ought to be. Ingle snarled out the lyrics—"You got the CBS / And the ABC / You got Time and Newsweek / They're the same to me!"—with a fervor the choir behind him only matched; Byrne sounds like he's running from the choir, like he's trying to get himself out of this mess before he bothers telling anyone else about it. Or listen to "Radio Head" (yup), one of the least viable extended metaphors ever to succeed, its sunny absurdity consistent in the way of dreams. It's a mess.
It's all a mess. And unlike the roiling polyrhythms of the Heads' heyday, it's not a well-navigated mess, nor a collaborative mess: there's little sense on True Stories of anyone's presence save Byrne's, and no sound he couldn't have made himself. In the end, it's this that keeps the album from the heights this band once inhabited. Where once a Talking Heads album was the sound of four people at the top of their game paying people who'd broken through the tops of theirs to explore the music they made up together, True Stories is the sound of David Byrne exploring his own quiet dreams, stripped even of the interpreters he hoped to employ.
But these are dreams worth dreaming, and as much as one mourns the absence of Goodman's "People Like Us"—the film's thesis statement, and its deftest melody—there are different pleasures to be had in Byrne's version: in the way the kid who wanted to be Hank Williams finally gets a chance to dress like him, and in the way this sad roaming character understands history. "How long must we live in the heat of the sun?" he croons, and then: "We don't want freedom / We don't want justice / We just want someone to love." Here at the end of his dreamed chronology, wearing tourist duds and third-hand weariness, talking clichés in someone else's language, Byrne hits on the once-in-a-lifetime secret he found once before: that this life is incandescent, sad, and voluminous, but the soil's seen it a million times and more.