Remain in Light / Music for the Knee Plays / Remain in Light

Talking Heads, 1980 / David Byrne, 1985 / Angélique Kidjo, 2018

There are mountains of text on Talking Heads—whole books written even on individual albums. They’re a band of truly classic status, loved both very personally by multiple generations. To this day, when David Byrne plays This Must Be the Place, there’s hardly a dry eye in the house ( but each person is crying for individual, associative reasons).

The trio of records Talking Heads made with Brian Eno , More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light are generally accepted as the cornerstone of their canon. Remain overlaps not just my undying love all things Byrne but also my obsession with all things Eno—plus you can throw in my later in life love African musics, which this album under the sway of.

Remain is the height of Talking Heads as ‘big tent.’ They had more support musicians than official members, and trusted Eno enough to give him wide berth, as producer. It’s a dense album, from the outset. Swirls of percussion and guitars, backup singers and effects jostle for your attention. Little wonder Once in a Lifetime was the hit single here: it’s more pared back than anything else on the album.

More than just an album, thought, Remain was a roadmap for future revelations. Brian Eno is a pandora’s box. You could dig into it’s afrobeat influences and discover Fela Kuti. You could follow the guesting lead guitarist, Adrian Belew into the 80s incarnation of King Crimson. Or, alternately, you might just check out more by the Talking Heads, and maybe explore David Byrne’s first forays into solo projects that immediately followed Remain.

What stands as my favorite solo record by David Byrne (Look into the Eyeball) has yet to be released on vinyl. Even if it gets reissue treatment I don’t think I could part with my copy of Music for the Knee Plays. Talking Heads and David Byrne were one of my first musical obsessions, and Knee Plays was, quite literally the first LP I ever bought. At the time I couldn’t find it on any other format—but I was obsessed, and needed to have it all.

The work is a soundtrack (of sorts) written for a Robert Wilson play (or, more accurately, the interludes of a larger play). The album is scored entirely for brass band, with about half the tracks overlain with David Byrne’s clipped speaking voice. He dictates little prose poems that are imminently Byrne-ian. He ruminates on metamorphosizing into someone else (after stealing their groceries). A character agonizes about what to wear for a big occasion. In the Future is a list of often contradictory predictions for what lays ahead. It would be wrong to say Knee Plays is an oddity in Byrne’s catalog, it was just the first one.

Returning to Remain in Light: Angélique Kidjo said she knew it was an African album on first listen. In her hands, it’s a truth made plain. She re-colonizes the songs, but in truth, they don’t sound all too different. What really transforms is her voice: where Byrne is all nerves, Kidjo is gutsy swagger. When she bellows 'Some 'a you people just about missed it!’, she’s more preacher than snake-oil salesman. The force of her presence managed to return Remain in Light to me, as new, despite knowing every nook and cranny of it.

It’s so rare to enjoy a cover of a song or album you already have a deep relationship with. They’re something that fairs better if you like the covering artist more than the covered. She can’t unseat the Talking Heads for me, but she puts up a hell of a fight.