THE ALBUM -- Taking Heads "Remain in Light," Sire SRK 6995; The SHOW -- Tuesday at 8 at the Warner Theater.
On three previous albums, David Byrne and Talking Heads showed how modern sturm and drang could be both danceable and amusing. Now that they our complete attention, now that they have us grinning like fools, our defenses sagging down around the dance floor, Byrne and company deliver the apocalyptic punch they were warming up for all along.
"Remain in Light," Talking Heads' new release, is nothing if not rhythmic, but it ain't no disco, and it sure ain't no fooling around. You might feel compelled to get up and dance to the primitive African pounding of the perpetual-motion machine, but only after discovering that a sit-down listening presents the danger of being bulldozed right into the sofa stuffing. Or as Byrne puts it on "Crosseyed and Ainless": Can't stop -- I might end up in the hospital."
Form Byrne's opening shriek, the album presents an image of civilization so horrifying that it makes Elvis Costello's "Armed Forces" seem about as threatening as the Symbinonese Liberation Army. To effect this stampede on the global psyche, Byrne and producer Brian Eno have gathered a herd of musicians who fill in every space with braying trumpets, galloping percussion and urgent choruses.
A relentless shift of viewpoint looses a disturbing anarchy upon the LP. On "Born Under Punches," a government automation shows its resistance to destruction. Whining glibly that "all I want is to breathe," he coaxes his prey to "Find a little space so we move in-between / And keep one step ahead of yourself (Don't you miss it!)," all against a chorus of "and the heat goes on. . ."
"Listening Wind" is an unflinching view of a terrorist's motivation, rooted in his determination to avenge the "power of the past," regardless of future holocaust. The song is as smoothly textured as Levantine silk, and is rivaled for beauty only by "The Great Curve," whose primal statement that "the world moves on a woman's hips" is prismatized by a cascade of choruses-within choruses.
The pace doesn't slow down until the final cut, "The Overload," in which we discover that not only does the center not hold, as William Butler Yeats once warned; it's already missing. Even here, the sound can be described less in terms of meter than of the movement of some unstoppable animal -- perhaps Yeats' rough beast, salsa-ing toward Bethlehem.
Musical and rhythmic repetition of the Brian Eno-Philip Glass variety abounds on this LP. But unlike the latter, Byrne is aware that, for better or worse, westerners like their resolutions, in music as well as politics. He uses repeating patterns only as a means of ingress for concepts and chorses.
There's bound to be a lot of talk about "changes" and "new directions" in connection with "Remain in Light." Elephant guano. Nothing this clean and calculated could be the result of a democratic prerecording get-together in the studio. Talking Heads have had a clear view of the path we're on all along, which is precisely what's so terrifying.