“She is moving to describe the world.”
That was the chorus served to us in fall of 1980 with “The Great Curve,” perhaps the wildest song on “Remain in Light,” the most inventive album devised by Talking Heads. At the time, the recording was all dark invention — polyrhythms, ambience and taut electronic grooves over lyrics still very steeped in sobering, post-punk introspection. But for David Byrne and company, it was also the pinnacle of a rapid artistic evolution forged by four albums in four years, three of which were produced or co-produced by Brian Eno.
As uttered by Byrne, “The Great Curve” was an observation, an uneasy glance at a life in motion. In the hands of the Angelique Kidjo, a native of Benin who has become one of the leading ambassadors of Afro-pop and world music over the past three decades, the song turns inward. Rewired to jettison the Eno-isms and emphasize inherent African rhythms, the song allows Kidjo to become part of the parade. She isn’t just moving to describe the world. She’s making it dance.
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Kidjo originally took “Remain in Light” to Carnegie Hall for a 2017 performance that included a guest appearance from one of the record’s foremost contributors, Nona Hendryx, along with an unplanned cameo by Byrne. Now she has committed the project to record, her own song-for-song interpretation of “Remain in Light.”
Contrasts between Kidjo’s version and the Heads’ original, by and large, come down to mood — Byrne’s dark but meditative turbulence versus Kidjo’s uninhibited jubilance. Should you want to dwell on specific differences, forward to the finale tune “The Overload,” which was played out by Talking Heads as an electronic dirge with Byrne sounding removed and deflated. Kidjo begins her version with a capella comfort. The music enters with more spaciousness — slow, comparatively sunny melodies that sound almost playful over chants and chirping guitar. The turbulence is still there, but the feel is less forlorn as Kidjo surmises “a condition of mercy, a change in the weather.”
Similarly, “Seen But Not Seen” sounds notably brighter. Like the Heads version, it’s essentially a séance. Here, though, the spoken word verses sound vastly less foreboding but no less fascinating.
As for “Once in a Lifetime,” which became a career-defining tune for Byrne, the feel capitalizes less on the quizzical self-evaluation within the lyrics and more on the joyous drive of the chorus, which Kidjo lets play out as a street parade.
This isn’t reinvention for the sake of it. What Talking Heads conjured in 1980 will forever remain its finest and most daring work. Kidjo simply does what all great disciples should when approaching such a classic. Specifically, she treats it with reverence, capitalizes on the elements that sing to her specifically and then lets her revision roar.