It’s an inevitably posed question, perhaps a fake-clever one, given Jonathan Lethem’s cheeky chapter titles in his new entry in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series about Talking Heads’ 1979 album Fear of Music. “Is Fear of Music A Talking Heads Record?” he asks in one. “Is Fear of Music A Text?” he poses in another. Plus, it’s also an obvious answer. Of course it’s a book. That’s the title right there on the 9-inch spine of the Continuum edition, just below the series’ logo, and its number in the set, which specifically is 86. But the answer is also yes in a far deeper way. Jonathan Lethem’s Fear of Music is profoundly a book.
Drowning in endless meta-analysis, classic recordings become easily reinspected via deluxe reissues, documentaries, tours recreating albums start-to-finish, oral histories, YouTube wormholes, and countless fan-driven back-channels, until their tracks get worn down and dulled by the proverbial gaze. The best of Continuum’s ongoing series — they just accepted proposals for volumes 87 and up — seem to effortlessly bypass the morass, becoming not only distinct cultural objects, but ones that actually enhance the aura of the originals. The books’ 4¾” x 6½” dimensions are about an inch too wide to be comfortably pocket-sized — the age of skinny jeans has not been kind to pocket paperbacks — but along with their black borders and color schemes matched from the covers of the LPs described therein, they are instantly recognizable. Their lack of titles besides those of the original albums somehow imbues them with paradoxically more identity.
The 33 1/3 books are books in the deepest possible way, in a manner that seems to grow rarer by the year: the cheap, usable kind of book that might eventually enter circulation at used bookstores and garage sales, making themselves (and their subjects and writers) that much less likely to slip into oblivion. Adding to the warmly mechanical aura of the series is its genuine pulpiness. At ten dollars retail, and often stamped out on-demand by Amazon, not all of the titles are winners, though misfires are often less due to a hackjob and more because a fan can’t quite quite get it all out. That or plain over-thinking. The treasures are real, though, ranging from deliciously researched monographs (Douglas Wolk’s Live at the Apollo, Amanda Petrusich’s Pink Moon) to imaginative and aching novellas (John Darnielle’s Master of Reality, John Niven’s Music From Big Pink) to finely honed fan-letters (Mike McGonigal’s Loveless), cultural critiques (Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love), and dozens of other approaches.
For noted paperback-head Jonathan Lethem (another chapter: “Is Fear of Music a Science Fiction Album?”) the form is a perfect match. He quickly lands on an elegant solution to the structural problem of how to write about an album, danced with by all of 33 1/3’s seven-dozen alums. Lethem simply alternates chapters named after tracks with chapters titled something else, in this case, his playful questions. It is a near-perfect workaround. The book stays focused on Fear of Music as experienced and Lethem resists the urge to slip too deeply into its creators’ timeline in anything beyond a passing way. The resultant text somehow manages to create the illusion of living wholly within the original record’s 40 minute, 40 second duration, despite taking (most likely) longer to read.
The answer to another question — Is Fear of Music a Jonathan Lethem Book? — is also a hearty yes. Conveying far more truth about music than his ostensible indie rock novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, it sometimes functions like a Critical Edition appendix to Fortress of Solitude. Beginning with Lethem as a 15-year old listening to the radio alone in his bedroom, the writer admits, “I’ve dragged [my teenage self] into the light of so many contexts he ought to be pictured by now as if blackened from head to toe with font.” But, perhaps because it’s everything a 33 1/3 title should be — readable, not too abstract, a good introduction to an album’s culture, and album culture as a whole – -it turns out to be a fine thing (just this once) that “the keyboard’s entirely in the kid’s hands.”
“Turn it up, for fuck’s sake,” Lethem suggests as he is supposed to in the book’s forward, but the most appropriate method of consumption might be headphones, where the experience of the Talking Heads’ music and Lethem’s writing might be that much more integrated, producer Brian Eno’s subtle treatments filling the spaces between words. Here’s Lethem on the fade-in intro to “Cities”:
The next ambulance is audible from miles away, klaxons screaming, tires swerving and juttering on blacktop, chassis screaming across the horizon, the whole thing lit up like, well, a house on fire… Hearing it approach, you understand this party has no beginning or end, never stops, only moves on to the next town.
Deftly, Lethem describes the sound and feeling of the recording while gracefully connecting it to the songs around it — in this case, “Life During Wartime” and “Mind.” Not to give too much away about Lethem the Younger’s activities, but still another chapter title is “So Fear of Music is a Concept Album. What Happens on Side Two?” Locating and tracing a path to the album’s center in the single-word song titles and internal hashtags — fear, music, mind, cities, air, and others — he establishes a basic language for the album that checks out with his teenage and contemporary selves. It adds up easily, piece by piece. This is no Greil Marcus imagining Bob Dylan gurgling with the breath of a Civil War soldier, but a conscientious listener pulling lovingly on Byrne’s threads, using them to find passage to a bigger well of ideas behind them.
As in a concert film where the musicians subtly grow louder when the cameras focus on them, Lethem’s observations — about the lyrics or otherwise — act as something like a conceptual remastering job on the record, inevitably transforming the reader’s next listen, with new lyrics, guitar parts, and ambiences coming to the foreground. In this way, Lethem’s treatment of Fear of Music demonstrates in a precise, direct way just what it is possible to get out of cultivating a deep relationship with an individual recording.
At one point, Lethem links “Heaven” to a “Fear of Nowhere sequence” within the bigger Heads songbook, stretching from 1978’s “Big Country” to 1985’s “Road to Nowhere.” But Fear of Music — Lethem’s Fear of Music, that is, not the Heads’ — is definitively not nowhere. Consumed at the right age (much like Talking Heads’ music itself), Fear of Music — a cool little green and black paperback — might provide a young reader/listener with a friendly road to somewhere indeed, connecting her to a much bigger conversation about art and life and music. And for a Talking Heads fan who might’ve overplayed Fear of Music into oblivion, it might provide a surprising and welcome road home.
But no matter what metaphors Lethem’s book provokes through its arch self-reference, it always gracefully reinforces its sheer bookiness. The reading experience is surely better while listening to Talking Heads (much in life is), but it’s not strictly necessary. Lethem recreates the album so thoroughly that — listening or not — one is destined to end up in the self-contained world of his book, the Talking Heads themselves appearing in pantomime, but still playing rather loudly, at a party that might never really stop, even after the last page.