The Naked Truth: Despite containing one of the band’s worst songs, Naked is an ambitiously adventurous swan song for one of popular music’s most notable experimenters
It’s a common occurrence that the last album by a band is rewarded some undue criticism simply by virtue of being ‘the last album.’ Naked is one of those cases. Ask any Talking Heads’ fan of their opinions and their answers range between complete dismissal or an admittance of ignorance. The story surrounding its release fits the common narrative of a band losing their creative steam as time goes on, and critics often tie Naked alongside True Stories as the worst in their career. But Naked was much more ambitious than critics often give it credit for, a unique portrait of a band switching most of their modus operandi in a last effort to breathe life into a well worn career.
Critiques of the album often note that it appears like an exercise of a band that lost its identity— which isn’t entirely off base. Conspicuously, Naked contains more guest musicians than any other Heads’ record by far. While this does bring an instrumental density typical of the band, many of the songs seem dictated more by the backing band than the core musicians. Furthermore, frontman David Byrne ditches his typical vocal contortions for a more linear songwriting style, resulting in a cache of songs that seem centered around him rather than each individual piece.
It becomes clear that Talking Heads were shooting for an entirely different approach than any of their preceding efforts. The tense, punkish energy that had undergirded their music up until Naked had dissipated, replaced entirely with an abundance of melody, sincerity, and unrestrained groove. Most fans would expect a Talking Heads record to deftly mix elements of punk, funk, dub, and worldbeat together. Conversely, Naked tosses much of this formula out in preference of a volatile jumble of Salsa, Afropop and Zydeco, while continuing along their experiments with country from their previous two records.
This results in some admirable experiments. “Blind,” the opening track, is a dazzler held together by feverous guitar licks and rolling percussion. It’s a fierce opener, mostly due to Byrne’s manic, swaggering vocals seemingly. [Nothing But] Flowers, possibly the most stunning track on the album, is a sunny ballad with bouncing African percussion balancing the shimmering guitar-work. Byrne’s lyrics tell the tale of modern man deprived of his creature comforts, as he aggrievedly sings, “The highways and cars / Were sacrificed for agriculture”
The satirical nature and post-apocalyptic imagery pervades the rest of the album, to scattershot effect. “Totally Nude”, a pastiche of Hawaiian music, may sound cheesy, but features some of David Byrne’s best vocal melodies, singing about the simple joys of living in the jungle. Ruby Dear attempts to tackle a similar theme, but is otherwise completely unremarkable track, with nothing compelling in the sparse instrumentation beyond the density of the drumming. In contrast, Mr. Jones has too much going on, with Tequila-esque trumpets punctuated every verse and chorus. Throughout the first half of the record, it becomes clear that the main flaws of Naked aren’t inherent in the change of focus for the band, but an inconsistency in quality songwriting.
This fault becomes readily apparent in the second half of the album. It features among the darkest cuts among Talking Heads discography, and deprived of the frenetic percussion that set the momentum on the first half, it’s also their most self-important. “The Facts of Life” is a sputtering industrial dirge that is equal parts boring and annoying, and features some of David Byrne’s laziest songwriting, as he tepidly croons, “Love is a machine / Without a driver.”
“Cool Water” ends the album well enough, with Byrne spinning a dark tale of monotony of work and the importance of compassion. Byrne has never been so sincere and serious, and it’s difficult not to think back to the time he was better equipped to tackle such subjects with his ironic wit and a yelp.
Naked was an incomplete transition for Talking Heads- a flawed step into the new phase of what the band could have turned into. Aside from a one-off single released three years after, we would never hear anything of this direction, as the band disbanded soon afterwards. As such, Naked would appear like an inconsequential end for one of rock’s most necessary bands. But even in retrospect, it still remains an ambitious change of pace during their final steps.
By Yale Wyatt – 2018