Review: ‘Speaking in Tongues’

Talking Heads’ classic new wave album turns 40 years old this year


Eli B

While their last album, focused more on loops and abstract passages, “Speaking In Tongues” is more straightforward and it uses more synths and keyboards.

Funky basslines, pulsating drums, wacky synths, and nonsensical lyrics come together to form this highly danceable 1983 album. Talking Heads were an underground art-punk band that broke into the mainstream and managed to get number 15 on the Billboard top 200 chart in 1983. The music on their album “Speaking in Tongues” radiates positive energy with a sense of humor, almost like the music itself is doing a comedy routine. It’s weirdly funny. With the recent announcement of the “Stop Making Sense” concert film being restored and re-released, there’s no better time than now to dive into the Talking Heads discography.

Talking Heads formed in New York City in 1975. The core lineup consists of David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison. Byrne, Weymouth, and Frantz met at the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduating, they moved to New York and joined the upcoming punk scene. They named their band Talking Heads and added Jerry Harrison to the lineup. 

After working together for 2 years, they released their first album, “Talking Heads: 77,” in 1977. Then, they collaborated with famous producer Brian Eno on the albums, “More Songs About Buildings and Food,” “Fear of Music,” and “Remain in Light.” All of these albums were very well received and in 1980, the band decided to go on hiatus to pursue other projects. 

Talking Heads regrouped in 1982 to record the follow up to “Remain in Light,” which became “Speaking in Tongues.” They recorded the album in New York City, Philadelphia, and Nassau. It was released on June 1, 1983 and it marked their commercial breakthrough, due in part to the single, “Burning Down the House,” which was a U.S. top 10 hit.

“Speaking In Tongues” is Talking Heads’ most danceable album. It pretty much forces you to get up and move. It’s great workout music. Your local gym could probably make a dance class revolving around music from this album. Some songs are more energetic than others, some are more relaxed, but they all have the same happy vibe. It’s a great outlet for DJs to practice their skills. The album works well for neighborhood house parties and massive clubs. You can listen to it while riding in a convertible with your buddies in the passenger seats, cruising on the open road. You can listen to it while in front of a turntable, just letting the music soak through your ears. “Speaking In Tongues” enhances the vibe of every scenario, except maybe a funeral. 

Their previous album, “Remain In Light,” focused more on loops and abstract passages within the music. It was constructed by fragments of different instrumental motifs. “Speaking In Tongues” is more straightforward and it uses more synths and keyboards. The thing both albums share in common is that they both take big influence from dance and funk music. 

The album’s instrumentation features layers of instruments, a trait that was established on “Remain In Light.” The bass guitar and drums establish a foundation for the tracks to build on. The rhythm guitar carries the tracks and propels it forward, like an oar for a boat. The lead guitar and the synths enhance the tracks and make them memorable. Oftentimes, the synths will be used to make weird sound effects that go along well with the music. The album’s production is very clean but not overproduced.

Byrne’s vocals sound fantastic on “Speaking In Tongues.” His vocal style is very unique, it sounds like he’s constantly nervous. His singing is exaggerated in an odd way but you can tell it’s purposeful. On this album especially, his vocals are packed with emotion. He really uses the full capacity of his vocal range. 

“Burning Down the House” opens the album with a quiet acoustic guitar line. Then the drums kick in and the rest of the instruments follow. This track was a massive hit in the 80s, especially in clubs. The synths provide the backbone of this song. The lyrics are mostly nonsensical but they do focus on a central theme, fire. The title of the song was taken from the phrase “Burn Down the House,” which was a common audience chant at Parliament-Funkadelic live shows. Parliament-Funkadelic were a massive influence on all of Talking Heads’ music, and it really shows on this album.

“Making Flippy Floppy” is a very funky track that sounds slightly off. Sounding ‘off’ isn’t a bad thing in this scenario, it adds to the nervous feel of the song, which is a staple in Talking Heads’ music. Like an anxious person who gains confidence later on, or in this case, during the chorus. This song has a very abstract guitar solo that reminds me of the solo from “The Great Curve,” the third track from “Remain In Light.” Although, “Making Flippy Floppy” is a lot less chaotic and heavy than “The Great Curve.” Although it is unclear, the song seems to be about a breakup.

“Girlfriend is Better” is very energetic and is a contender for the most funky Talking Heads song. The chorus of this song is incredibly catchy. This is also probably the most straightforward song lyrically on this album. It’s about bragging about how cool your girlfriend is. This song features a very weird solo, I honestly can’t tell if it’s a synth or a guitar. It sounds a lot like the solo from the song “Moonshake” by Can, from their album “Future Days.” Talking Heads have cited Can as an influence, so it wouldn’t be surprising if that were true.

“Slippery People” has a very unique ‘walking’ bassline. Like the bass is taking steps throughout the song. It also features backup vocalists that enhance the overall feel of this track. The chorus is undoubtedly the highlight, it’s incredibly catchy. This song also has weird, lingering synths that sound alien-esque. The song seems to be about trying to turn your life around. The lyrics mention wheels a lot throughout the song, so that could mean steering the trajectory of your life. It also mentions people losing their minds and going crazy. 

“I Get Wild / Wild Gravity” has more of a reggae sound than a funk sound. The guitars provide really weird effects on this track, they’re kind of ominous. They almost sound like razor blades. This track is definitely the most industrial sounding on the album too. It’s more subdued, not as energetic. It does provide a pleasant change of pace though. This song’s lyrics continue the theme of losing your mind from “Slippery People.” It talks about losing gravity and the ability to connect to the ground. 

“Swamp” is by far the heaviest song on this album. Byrne sings more harshly, and the guitars are more distorted. This track has a paranoid and angry vibe. The synths also kind of sound like echos in a cave or sirens from an ambulance. It’s not scary, but it is menacing. The lyrics of this song are quite spooky. It’s about monsters and demons coming to get you. Blood is mentioned several times in the song, which makes it great for a Halloween party. 

“Moon Rocks” picks the energy back up and brings the funk in full swing. The guitar riff on this song is one of the most memorable on this album. There’s also a funny synth line throughout this track that kind of sounds like a puppy singing in your left ear. The other synths are meant to replicate the sounds of a UFO. I’m pretty sure this song is about someone who gets abducted by aliens, gets taken to the moon, and eats a rock. Definitely the funniest track on the album.

“Pull Up the Roots” probably has Byrne’s most energetic vocal performance on the whole album. This track is like a peak of energy before the end. And that chorus, it’s so good. The lead guitar sounds zany and wacky. The overall vibe is like you’re in a toy store or a candy store as a kid. There’s also lots of cowbell on this track. Looking closer into the album’s lyrics reveals a common theme of going crazy. This song is about someone who completely loses their mind and considers it an achievement. The lyrics mention being really happy to be in a place, perhaps the state of mind where you’ve reached peak craziness.

“This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” closes the album on a very relaxed and chill note. While “I Get Wild / Wild Gravity” is subdued in a nervous way, like you know someone’s watching you from outside your window, this track is subdued in a content way, like you’re at home with your loved ones. When listening to this song, I picture in my mind being at a family reunion, laying down on the couch, while this song plays in the background and I say to myself, “I’m glad to be home.” That’s the vibe of this song. There’s a synth throughout this song that sounds like a cross between a horn and a flute, and it makes me so happy whenever I hear it. This song is beautiful. The lyrics detail the feeling you get when you arrive home and you know everything is going to be alright, you are safe. The lyrics on “Pull Up the Roots” mention trying to get to a place. Could this be the place that they’re talking about? Like after you lose your mind, you arrive at a place that feels like home? If so, it ties the album together thematically. 

If you love funk, dance, synth pop, or new wave music, you’ll love this album. If you’re a big fan of 80s pop and you haven’t heard this album before, I highly recommend it. Talking Heads’ other albums are great too. Their earlier stuff is like a fusion of punk and funk while their later stuff is more alternative rock. Other new wave bands from this era such as Devo, New Order, Talk Talk, and Depeche Mode are great bands as well.

Rating: 9.7/10

It has been recently announced that A24 is releasing a restored 4K version of the Talking Heads concert film, “Stop Making Sense.” Originally released in 1984, “Stop Making Sense” details a live show during the tour for “Speaking In Tongues.” It is widely regarded as one of the greatest concert films of all time. It’s set to return to theaters later this year and the entire concert will be released on vinyl for the first time. If you listen to “Speaking In Tongues,” and you really like it, you can go watch “Stop Making Sense” afterwards when it comes out.


“Speaking In Tongues” is available on the big streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Soundcloud, and Amazon Music. It’s also readily available on vinyl and CD.