#4: Talking Heads, ‘Remain in Light’ (1980) vs. U2, ‘Achtung Baby’ (1991)

I have spent so much time listening to these two albums trying to decide which one is better I have gone from loving them to being sick of them, and I still don’t know which one to choose.  So let’s just get this damn review done, and see where it goes.

One thing worth saying off the top is that both of these collections have very cool origin stories as both bands were at a crossroads when they made them. The Talking Heads were tired of being David Byrne plus three, so they made a concerted effort to do something more collaborative. And U2, stung from the critical backlash against Rattle and Hum, were tired of being so serious all the time, so made a concerted effort to bring a little playfulness to their sound.

They both recruited Brian Eno to help out. In Talking Heads’ case, Eno was there to “promote the expression of instinct and spontaneity without overtly focusing on the sound of the final product.” In the case of U2, Eno was there to “to come in and erase anything that sounded too much like U2.”

Both bands made masterpieces that confounded listener expectations right from their opening minutes.

I thought Paul Simon’s Graceland was the first American pop album to weave in African sounds but now I know Remain in Light came first. As Wikipedia puts it: “Drawing on the influence of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, the band experimented with African polyrhythms, funk, and electronics, recording instrumental tracks as a series of looping grooves.”

The result is a little bizarre and endlessly compelling. This album gets more interesting every time you listen to it. It pretty much commands you to move your body, and David Byrne’s lyrics – full of stream of consciousness weirdness – seem to mean everything and nothing at the same time. (Perhaps no coincidence that Brian Eno “believed that lyrics were never the center of a song’s meaning”). I especially like “Seen and not Seen”, a story about a fellow who decides to change his face by pure will; as awesome as it is bonkers.

Two other things that need to be said about Remain in Light:

  •  The album’s most famous track, “Once in a Lifetime”, is extra brilliant – verses about how life runs away on us (“How did I get here?”) and a chorus about water flowing underground. It’s the catchiest mid-life crisis ever.
  • Closing track “The Overload” is Talking Heads’ attempt to sound like Joy Division without ever actually having heard Joy Division. That’s such a peculiar thing to do, it takes the band to a whole new level of cool.

I should note Achtung Baby was the frontrunner coming into this battle. That album is just so…big. Plus, I’ve always been more of a U2 fan than a Talking Heads fan. I’m of an age that their album releases were events. That band is in my DNA.

Achtung Baby is wonderful, especially the first two-thirds. It’s almost relentless in the number of gorgeous, moving, memorable songs it throws at you – “One”, “Who’s Going to Ride Your Wild Horses”, “So Cruel”, “Mysterious Ways”…it goes on and on.

But the band wanted to do other things too – they wanted to mess with us. For U2 fans of the era, you can still remember the surprise of hearing first single “The Fly”, or the opening track “Zoo Station”. Were U2 an industrial band now? Is this dance music? What’s going on here? Is this what they were looking for?

Alas, for me, these are not the better songs. I like the more U2-ish songs. “The Fly” kinda bores me. It doesn’t stick. My other unpopular opinion is that if you want U2 that doesn’t sound like U2, the songs on follow-up Zooropa are better. I’d rather listen to “Lemon” than “The Fly”. (Yeah, I said it – Zooropa is underrated.)

Also, the album doesn’t know when to stop. With the last three tracks, Achtung Baby starts to fade into the background. This is not the case with Remain in Light, which never stops being interesting. Achtung Baby is 55 minutes. Remain in Light is 40. I think if U2 had edited down to their best 40 minutes, they might have won this battle…but I see now where this is going.

You also have to give Talking Heads props for innovation and influence. Achtung Baby was a reinvention of U2. Remain in Light, by blending genres and introducing sounds into pop music that hadn’t been done before, was a reinvention on a bigger scale.


WINNER: Talking Heads, Remain in Light (5 points)


80s: 22

90s: 24

80s: 67
90s: 63

Next week’s post – #3: U2, ‘The Joshua Tree’ (1987) vs. Radiohead, ‘OK Computer’ (1997)

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