In the course of recording his new solo CD, Look Into the Eyeball, David Byrne realized that he had written some of the most melodic and accessible music of his career. It was a thought that unnerved the multitalented songwriter/performer/filmmaker/artist.
"I have a little bit of that prejudice that I think a lot of us have -- that if something sounds too easy on the ears, if it sounds kind of pretty or beautiful, your first assumption is that it doesn't have much depth to it or it doesn't have anything radical or important to say," Byrne said. "I think it's an erroneous assumption, but it's one that's there. And I tie that over into when I hear my own stuff. If something sounds real pretty, I think, 'Oh, that's not very good.' But I think it's a false assumption to [dismiss things] that way."
The need to challenge himself musically has been an ongoing thread throughout Byrne's career, be it in the Talking Heads, the innovative, multifaceted group he co-founded in 1975, or in the solo career on which he embarked in the late '80s.
Byrne's decision to leave the Talking Heads was partly the result of realizing he couldn't pursue some of his musical ambitions within the context of that group. His instincts were at odds with the other group members, guitarist Jerry Harrison, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz.
"I wanted to do a Latin record, and well, I took some of the songs to Talking Heads, but they didn't want to do them," Byrne said. "That didn't leave me too many choices."
Of course there were other issues, one of which was the tension that resulted from Byrne's becoming more of a focal point within the Talking Heads during the latter stages of the band's tenure. It was clear that the other members of the Talking Heads resented the growing assumption that Byrne was the creative engine behind the group. In some circles, it was suggested that Byrne had essentially taken over the Talking Heads.
"They're right about part of that," Byrne said, when asked about that situation. "I don't know about taking over [the band]. I don't think that part happened. But the press was definitely focusing on me, which I think was not a good thing. Yeah, it was very divisive, and of course a lot of the press liked that, too."
Though the Talking Heads never officially announced a breakup, by 1989 the group had essentially split. "It wasn't fun when I left, and it hadn't been fun for awhile," Byrne said. "I think we were still making good music, so I think that part worked out OK. But I thought, 'This is not what this is about. I'm not into being a martyr here.'"
So Byrne jumped into the next phase of his career with both feet. He founded a record label, Luaka Bop, that would focus largely on showcasing music of South America and Africa. As a solo artist, he would delve further into various combinations of world beat and pop.
First out was the 1989 album of Latin music, Rei Momo, which drew mixed reviews. Byrne received a healthy amount of criticism from musicians and writers who felt his music lacked authenticity. Byrne's restless spirit, though, was not deterred, and he has continued to draw from an eclectic range of musical influences on the solo albums that followed.
Byrne entered into Look Into the Eyeball with a general concept he wanted to pursue. "The self-titled album pretty much had a simple concept that I would put together a band, a real band, take it on the road and then record after we played a bunch of live dates, which we did," Byrne said. "The Feelings record, though, was a bit all over the place. The only concept I can think of there was the fact that it was a collaboration with a lot of people. This one was, yeah, more musically defined -- bass and drums, some percussion and strings. And pretty much that was the musical palette on most of the songs."
Working within that format pushed Byrne's music into more of a melodic direction. In the song "The Great Intoxication," Byrne is especially successful at merging percolating rhythms with soaring string and vocal melodies. "Desconocido Soy," a song sung entirely in Spanish, shifts the focus more to a grooving beat without losing the song's sharp melodic edge. "The Revolution" pushes in the opposite direction, downplaying rhythm in favor of a swooning melody.
In the past, Byrne has admitted that, early in his solo career, he tried to avoid anything that would evoke his former band. These days, he's more willing to embrace some musical trademarks of the Talking Heads, although he approaches such familiar styles with considerable care.
"There was one [song] that I did that didn't make it to this record that sounded very much to me like an old Talking Heads song," Byrne said. "It was a good song, but it didn't fit on this record. So that's still part of my makeup. But also I'm aware that it's a danger that I could slip into a well-worn path there. It's something that comes a little bit too easily."