When Music and Books Collide: Jonathan Lethem on Talking Heads

This ain't no party/ This ain't no disco/ This ain't no foolin' around. No, this is music criticism, and in the right hands it's serious business. The latest installment in the addictive 33 1/3 line of music books—each of which pairs an author with an iconic pop album—finds novelist Jonathan Lethem in deep consultation with his 15-year-old self over the secret messages hidden all over Talking Heads' third album, Fear of Music.

Lethem, who seems to be everywhere these days, is usually lauded for his fiction, but in some ways his writerly strengths are most apparent in his nonfiction, especially in his many essays and meditations on the cultural obsessions of his youth: Philip K. Dick, Bob Dylan, seventies superhero comics.

Now, Talking Heads (and Brian Eno, the album's producer) join his private pantheon, as Lethem takes the reader on a dense, conceptual tour of the album, one track at a time, in the process exposing "I Zimbra"'s cultural roots in Dadaism, fixing the hidden meaning of "Cities" within the growing pains of a newly touring band, and evocatively describing the aural impact of "Memories Can't Wait" ("Every grinding gear, every corroding nut and bolt, each once-tremulous syllable or plucked note of this dreadnought of a song wears an exoskeleton of reverb and sonic crud as it grinds grimly uphill, armored like a Doctor Doom or Robocop who has been smeared with tar and rolled like a cheese log in grave").

Having a David Byrne fixation will certainly help readers keep up with Lethem on the occasions when he overthinks a particular passing moment (and argue with him over his stranger asides, such as when he calls a bit of lyrical goofiness "out of character"), but it's hardly necessary. When Lethem's really on a roll, as he is through most of this, overthinking becomes contagious.

THREE OTHER 33 1/3 TITLES WORTH CHECKING OUT: Carl Wilson's Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love, Douglas Wolk's James Brown: Live at the Apollo, Hank Shteamer's Ween's Chocolate and Cheese.

—Timothy Hodler, research director at Details

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Your Spring Nonfiction Reading List

Image courtesy of Continuum Books
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