Talking Heads’ real achievement was the creation of pop music combining passion with self-conscious braininess. Early singles and album cuts—which dominate the first disc of their new boxed set, Once In a Lifetime—remain startlingly fresh, with the already-dangerous rhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz receiving additional clarity through sorely needed digital remastering. Talking Heads were always contrarians: dressing preppy and admiring disco within the militantly unfunky punk milieu, while David Byrne sang about love as if he were trying desperately to understand, or even reject it.
Disc two details the band’s immersion in African polyrhythm, which began during sessions for Fear of Music (1979) and resulted in the group’s masterpiece, Remain in Light (1980). Layering simple grooves with shifting waves of percussion, guitar and voice, Light created a delirium of tribal beats, and led to a spastic video for the enduring “Once In a Lifetime.” (The group’s trailblazing video output is preserved in its entirety on disc four). Talking Heads returned in 1983 with the disco party of Speaking In Tongues, their last great studio album (The soundtrack to the legendary live film Stop Making Sense was released in ’84), and their first to go platinum; likable but underwhelming efforts (1985’s Little Creatures, 1988’s Naked) followed. Disc three gamely sifts wheat (“And She Was,” “Nothing But Flowers”) from latter-day tares.
The band left a legacy too rich for any summary, but this one—with beautiful packaging, vastly improved sound and a judicious smattering of outtakes—should stand as definitive.