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Fear of Music (33 1/3 series)

by Jonathan Lethem

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Fear of Music by Jonathan Lethem
© Continuum Books
Continuum Books, 2012

It's 1979 and 15-year-old Jonathan Lethem is in his Brooklyn bedroom, listening to his radio when a high, reedy voice intones a singular statement: "Talking Heads have a new album. It's called Fear of Music." So begins Lethem's journey with a piece of music by which he was profoundly influenced, a journey whose evident culmination ends in Lethem, over the course of five years, penning this eponymously titled book about the Talking Heads album.

Lethem's apppraisal of Fear of Music is the furthest thing from an objective accounting that one could hope for (or dread). In 2003, he had this to say about the album:

"I played the third album by Talking Heads, called Fear of Music, to the point of destroying the vinyl, then replaced it with another copy. I memorized the lyrics, memorized the lyrics to other Talking Heads albums, saw Talking Heads play any chance I got... At the peak, in 1980 or 1981, my identification was so complete that I might have wished to wear the album Fear of Music in place of my head so as to be more clearly seen by those around me."

It's unclear how Continuum Books selects the albums for its 33 /13 series or the writers who cover them, but one thing is certain - not getting Jonathan Lethem to write this book would have been a crime. Or at least a massive oversight.

Lethem starts - where else? - at the beginning of Fear of Music, with the musical anomaly that is "I Zimbra". Who else but Jonathan Lethem would know that the "crypto-tribal chanted nonsense syllables that pass for lyrics" in this song actually sprung from the writing of German Dadaist poet, Hugo Ball. I didn't. I also didn't know that the ablum was conceived by the Talking heads as a means to close the gap between disco and punk. I didn't know a lot of things before reading Fear of Music.
As he works his way through the songs on the alubm, Lethem truly gets inside the music. More accurately, he achieves what it is he sets out to do, which was, "to simply draw a circle on the page the exact size of an L.P. Then to step inside and put down in words exactly what I heard there."

Here then are a few samplings of what Lethem had to say about some of the songs on Fear of Music:

"Mind"

"The lunatic optimism of 'Mind''s ascending guitar pattern and squirting keyboard noises (sound effects for screwball-comedy chemists brewing novelties in a beaker) together with the chipper can-do-ism of the rhythm section, present a burbling wind-up toy that mistook itself for a machine of some great and important purpose. Really, the thing's only bumping into walls (science, religion, whatever), righting itself, and continuing merrily nowhere."

"Paper"
"On earlier albums Talking Heads treated art-making pretty reverently; 'Paper''s where that reverence goes to die. It's the nemesis-song for an earlier Talking Heads' track: the heartfelt 'The Book I Read,' in which stable value is accorded to a bound stack of pages and also to a fan letter jotted in the encounter's aftermath, thus doubly affirming the efficient and human connection between writer and reader."
Under the ominous veneer, the punk panic of the car-alarm effects, the grinding of some Eno-processed Berline noise, 'Cities' runs the Velvets 'Rock and Roll' straight into K.C. and The Sunshine Band's boundless groove: One fine morning she put on the radio station and she said, that's the way, uh-huh uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh uh-huh! Find a city, make a little love, get down tonight!"

In between each of the chapters devoted to a particular song, Lethem analyzes Fear of Music as a holistic entity in the context of a number of questions designed to delve more deeply into the album's nature: Is Fear of Music a Text? Is Fear of Music a New York album? Is Fear of Music a Science Fiction record? Lethem isn't foolin' around as he attacks the nature of this album from all sides. By the book's end, references and comparisons have ranged from James Brown to Philip K. Dick and from Funkadelic to Kurt Vonnegut; we delve into paranoia, distress, and architecture. If you love Talking Heads, then you're going to love this book.

Casual reader be warned: Lethem's not skimming surfaces. Sure, Fear of Music is a scant 140 pages, but the author manages to dive deeply into his obsession and love for this album and those who enter here will want to carry a similar torch. Or at least a cigarette lighter that they've held up at a Talking Heads concert or two.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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