Chad Parkhill takes us for a tour through the world of weird, wonderful and unexpectedly danceable tunes. iPods at the ready: this is the final instalment in this special five-part blog series.
Talking Heads, ‘(Nothing But) Flowers’
As the title of this series suggests, the songs it has dealt with have been ‘hidden’ in some way: neglected by history, birthed in obscurity, cloaked in abrasive noise, or simply unjustly underappreciated. These are, perhaps, some of the most obvious ways music can be hidden, and indeed some of these aspects of music are sufficiently desirable that they can be used as marketing devices. (I would never have heard Purple Brain’s edit of ‘To the Comrades’ had I not purchased their limited-edition 7”/CD bundle – and I wouldn’t have purchased it if it hadn’t possessed the ineffable cool factor of being a limited edition and featuring deeply obscure music.) However, there are many more ways for something to hide, including that most paradoxical form of hiding: hiding in plain sight.
Talking Heads’ ‘(Nothing But) Flowers’ doesn’t try to hide in plain sight: it was released as the final single for what would turn out to be their final album, Naked, and indeed it was their second most successful single ever on the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts, despite being neither very mainstream nor very rock. (Their most successful track on the same chart is, bizarrely, ‘Wild Wild Life’, which perhaps proves that when it comes to Talking Heads’ songs, chart performance shouldn’t be the starting point for a discussion of aesthetic merit.) Nonetheless, it has since slipped into a kind of genteel disrepair in the Talking Heads canon, having been later pipped to the post as the last proper Talking Heads single by ‘Lifetime Piling Up’ from the compilation Sand in the Vaseline and by being part of an album that, in retrospect, sounds like a band recording its own eulogy. (Michael Hastings of AllMusic, for example, argues that ‘the album’s elegiac, airtight tone betrays the sound of four musicians growing tired of the limits they’ve imposed on one another.’) Then there’s also the matter of critical reappraisal in the internet age, where writers have easier access to the entire Talking Heads catalogue and can breezily proclaim, almost as if in unison, that Remain in Light is the artistic acme of the band’s career.
Another way to put it: if you’ve not heard many Talking Heads songs, it’s unlikely that ‘(Nothing But) Flowers’ will be among that number. Posterity has been very kind to a number of the band’s songs, many of which weren’t terribly successful upon their release – such as ‘Psycho Killer’ (which peaked at number 92 on the general Billboard chart), ‘This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)’ (number 62), and ‘Once in a Lifetime’ (number 103) – yet this song remains something of a hidden gem in the band’s discography, for reasons I can’t quite fathom. Everything excellent about Talking Heads is here in one place. There’s the band’s penchant for collaboration and genre experimentation—The Smiths’ Johnny Marr plays guitar on this track, alongside African session musicians Abdou M’Boup, Yves N’Djock, and Brice Wassy (known as the ‘king of 6/8 rhythm’ and admired by none other than Fela Kuti). There’s an amazing beat and bassline, provided by one of rock music’s most unobtrusive and dependable rhythm section, Tina Weymouth (bass) and Chris Frantz (drums). There’s an excellent vocal melody of the kind that David Byrne specialises in, written after the groove had been recorded and inhabiting it perfectly. Finally, it continues the band’s extensive exploration of textual irony by being a song about a post-human future narrated from the point of view of a nostalgic remnant of the twentieth century whose weltanshauung was formed at (what was then considered) the height of mankind’s destructive excess.
This textual irony means that the song is ferociously difficult to pin down to a single meaning. Critics have long been divided about what, exactly, the song is trying to say: for Robert Christgau, it is ‘a gibe at ecology fetishism’; for Pitchfork’s Joe Tangari, it’s ‘a wistful celebration of the end of civilization’. Is it pro- or anti-capitalist, anti- or pro-environment? Byrne himself, in his book How Music Works, offers only an oblique comment in the form of an anecdote about how the lyrics were written: while driving around suburban Minneapolis, he was struck with the image of a future America in which the economy had collapsed and the strip malls and housing developments had decayed into a feral state. ‘The twist was,’ Byrne writes, ‘that this scenario allowed me to also frame the song as a nostalgic look at vanishing sprawl, a phenomena I hadn’t thought that I was terribly sentimental about. It was obviously ironic in intent, but it also allowed me to express a love and affection for aspects of my culture that I had previously professed to loathe.’
This richly layered irony might explain the strange effect of ‘(Nothing But) Flowers’ when played, at loud volume, as the final song of a DJ set. You would expect the groove to be tinged with sorrow as the dancers are reminded of the ecological catastrophes that humankind has wrought; instead, though, the song has a celebratory edge, a musical ebullience that the lyrics can’t quite tame. While Byrne’s narrator laments the disappearance of ‘cherry pies, candy bars and chocolate-chip cookies,’ the band behind him suggest a colourful riot of animal and plant life reclaiming North America’s barren suburban sprawl. Thus the effect is one that encourages celebration in spite of the song’s elegiac tone; we know that we are poised on the brink of destruction and a future that will not be kind to those humans that remain, but we dance on anyway.
Chad Parkhill is the Festival Manager of the National Young Writers’ Festival. His work has appeared in The Australian, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, and The Quietus, among others.