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Talking Heads portrait early days

David Byrne’s Ironic Dystopia

written by: on April 22, 2011

In Bret Easton Ellis’ eponymous novel “American Psycho,” a single epigraph precedes the story, “And as things fell apart/Nobody paid much attention.” Thematically, the line eloquently surmises one of the novel’s central subjects: Serial killer Patrick Bateman is able to carry out his grisly hobby, while the world around him is none the wiser.

A successful broker on Wall Street, Bateman blends into the yuppie culture that plagued the late-’80s and becomes a faceless entity adrift in an indifferent environment. Even the people he sees every day are aware he’s succumbing to his innermost demons.

Easton borrowed the line from the song “(Nothing But) Flowers,” a late-period Talking Heads track that ranks among the band’s most underrated. Featuring additional instrumentation from none other than The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr, the song is an infectious pop concoction that boasts the kind of intricate musicality that made Talking Heads one of the most successful acts of the ’80s.

Clocking in at almost six minutes, “(Nothing But) Flowers” has a pace that belies its long runtime. On more than one occasion, the band has worked in long form to great effect. In a lesser band’s hand, the song would have ended up lethargic and overwrought. It helps that the Talking Heads were some of the most technically skilled musicians of their time.

Bassist Tina Weymouth particularly shines, driving home a bouncy bass line that provides adequate space for the rest of the band to craft a tropically tinged song.

Providing another layer of intrigue comes from Marr, whose distinctive style of playing is most apparent on the song’s extended bridge.

Appearing on their final album, 1988’s Naked, the song was recorded in a fashion unique to the band at that time. They held a series of improvisational jam sessions that led to the roughly 40 demo tracks the band brought to Paris in which to craft the album.

Accordingly, “(Nothing But) Flowers” has the distinct feel a band truly playing together. The song’s organic melody is indicative of Talking Heads’ proficient musicianship.

Beneath the jumpy rhythms and jangly guitar tempos is a delightfully cynical story about the downfall of overpopulation. Front-man David Byrne’s lyrics detail a society that has reverted back to a more naturalistic time and how civilization must now learn to cope without the luxury of urbanization.

As a fictional protagonist at odd with this new lifestyle, Byrne yearns for the vestiges of his previous life, including the Pizza Hut, Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens. By acting woefully discontented, the song’s narrative flows plays out like a satirical jab as the modern man who relies too heavily on modern convenience.

Never one to shy from capricious lyrics, the song boasts some of Byrne’s most deliciously contemptuous lines. Frequently, he describes scenes filled with “nothing but flowers,” a kind of oxymoron meant to illustrate society’s misguidance, as if flowers are a bad thing and entirely inconsequential to the glory of fast food and microwaves.

In other instances, his cleverness revels in the same stupidity he’s mocking: “From the age of the dinosaurs, cars have run on gasoline/Where? Where have they gone now?/It’s nothing but flowers.”