For Angélique Kidjo – probably Africa’s best-known female singer – to record a version of Talking Heads’ classic art-rock masterwork Remain in Light is both an obvious choice and a strange one.
The original album pretty much rolled along on one chord, driven by looped rhythms that were largely inspired by afrobeat master Fela Kuti. So it makes sense for Kidjo to reclaim the album for Africa.
Yet as a singer, it is not the most logical work to record. David Byrne’s original vocals were recorded after all the rhythm tracks were laid down, sometimes spoken, and were almost decoration on the grooves. It’s not like she has a pile of tunes to get behind, but what she does have is a powerhouse voice to create more impact than Byrne.
Enter producer Jeff Bhasker, who has worked with Rihanna, Kanyé West, Bruno Mars and Drake. He has amped up the afrobeat, horns and percussion. Fela Kuti’s own drummer Tony Allen is here, as are both Pino Palladino and Abe Laboriel, Sr., on bass. One detail that updates the funk is some complementary bass synths under the guitars of “Born under Punches.” There’s so much energy here.
Even though Byrne’s lyrics are somewhat enigmatic, lyrically, this song is one of the tracks that strike home for Kidjo, who grew up in Benin and escaped its censorious communist dictatorship in the early ‘80s. Remain in Light was originally written under the Reagan adminstration, but the song’s take on government corruption is one that Kidjo recognised in Trumpian America and wider society, and is one of her main reasons for recording the album.
The video from “Born Under Punches” makes it clearer:
“Take a look at these hands
They’re passing in-between us…
You don’t have to mention it
No thanks, I’m a government man”
Or in “Cross-Eyed and Painless:
“Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them”
To make the point more strongly, she has added extra decorative lyrics – often from traditional songs and in her own language – and she has accentuated other themes she sees in the lyrics, such as mistreating the planet, the media’s negative portrayal of Africa and appreciating your culture.
The latter particularly struck Kidjo, and (even though the song’s protagonist is male) “Seen and Not Seen” is sung from the point of view of an older Beninese woman, who disapproves of young girls bleaching their faces to look more western. The principle is universal, though, speaking to anyone who wants their own face to fit the perceived wider ideal, losing something of themselves in the process:
“He would see faces in movies, on TV, in magazines, and in books
He thought that some of these faces might be right for him
And through the years, by keeping an ideal facial structure fixed …
somewhere in the back of his mind
That he might, by force of will, cause his face to approach those of his ideal
The change would be very subtle; it might take ten years or so
Gradually his face would change its shape…
He imagined that this was an ability he shared with most other people
They had also moulded their faces according to some ideal.”
While the album normally makes us think of singles like “Once in a Lifetime,” there are other highlights in this version, particularly “Listening Wind,” a post-colonialism song about terrorism that sounds as if it were written in Africa, rather than New York. Its extra chord makes so much difference and the refrain is a great hook.
Final track “The Overload” misses the original’s point of being a Joy Division impression and just drifts before petering out, but in a single-track download world, this re-invention of a classic album is a very welcome and worthwhile idea.