It’s Time to Talk About Talking Heads’ Final Studio Album, “Naked”

With the band’s eighth and final LP turning 35 last week, how come no one born after 1988 seems to be aware of it?

It’s Time to Talk About Talking Heads’ Final Studio Album, Naked

With the band’s eighth and final LP turning 35 last week, how come no one born after 1988 seems to be aware of it?

Words: Mike LeSuer

March 20, 2023

We’ve all been there: Sitting bolt upright in bed, suddenly remembering a pop culture experience we had years ago—particularly a then-negligible detail which now seems entirely surreal—and suffering future sleepless nights after confirming the detail in the morning. It’s Time to Talk About is our way of bringing these issues to light in hopes that such conversations can become easier in the future. Sometimes it’s better to talk about it.

If it wasn’t for my parents’ small but beguilingly eclectic CD collection—Under the Table and Dreaming, Jars of Clay’s first three records, the Santana album with “Smooth” on it, Gentle Giant’s self-titled—I can’t guarantee that I’d be aware of Talking Heads’ final studio album, Naked. In fact, when I got so deep into Speaking in Tongues a few years ago that my mind suddenly conjured the eloquently framed image of a monkey paired with a word so scandalous to my prepubescent brain that I retained the memory, I still wasn’t convinced it was real. A quick google search revealed the picture I had in my mind, sure, but I could hardly find anything written about it beyond a sparse Wikipedia page, backdated (and paywalled) writeups on sites like Rolling Stone, and unhelpful Amazon product reviews (“The condition of jacket and vinyl is rather impeccable,” raves Richreviews). 

Obviously it isn’t uncommon for late-career releases by artists whose time together was clearly coming to an end to maintain a low profile, especially when those releases came out long before the internet could easily archive everything written about them. I’m also obviously aware of the fact that any studio album by a band as widely celebrated in their time (and up to the present moment) as Talking Heads is will undoubtedly find ears—especially, again, in an era marked by the collective efforts of the internet to make sure you’re aware of every single thing that has ever happened at all times. But whenever I mention Naked to peers who were born after its March 1988 release, the few of them who are even aware of the record have never spent time with it outside of the single “(Nothing but) Flowers,” which still seems to have legs in mainstream and too-online culture alike. 

After putting probably too much thought into it, I gave the album a listen around five years ago and I was pretty surprised with what I heard—surprised, first of all, because the album rollercoasters through countless genres (salsa, Afro-funk, Latin-pop) outside of the relatively straight lane of new wave Talking Heads adhered to on their prior two releases, while perhaps spanning an even wider range of emotions (some of the most colorful quote-unquote world music they ever made, as well as some of their most tonally dark sounds). But I was also surprised by the quality of much of the album, considering the fact that it’s almost uniformly ranked as the worst LP they ever made together (well, just “uniformly” if you don’t include their pseudo-soundtrack to David Byrne’s directorial debut True Stories). I’m not saying it’s better than Speaking in Tongues or Remain in Light (Little Creatures? Maybe.), but I did get the urge to go full 15 year old TikTok user elatedly announcing their discovery of some oldie called “Pumped Up Kicks” when the uninhibited “Totally Nude” riff kicked in.

If this track—which, among other things, forces you to visualize a birthday-suited Dave Byrne swinging from vines like George of the Jungle—and the aforementioned elegy to Pizza Huts and microwaves “(Nothing but) Flowers” represent the Heads at their most fluid and ecstatic, the mid-album industrialist dirge about pumping out babies “The Facts of Life” provides a jarring antithesis both in subject matter and in tone. Rather than spelling out the Edenic freedom of nudity, here it’s addressed with the imagery—and sounds—of assembly lines subbing in for the passion with which sex is generally described in verse. This track along with the anti-labor anthem “Cool Water,” which closes out the album (and the band’s career if you don’t count the too-new-wavey-for-Naked B-side “Sax and Violins,” which resurfaced a few years later to soundtrack a Wenders film) on a truly unsettling note, take the dark undertones of a song like “Born Under Punches” to new levels I kind of wish the band had explored more before half-assing this bare-ass-themed closing statement.

It’s kind of a bummer that Naked landed with such a thud when its themes of rebirth and primalism and wholly rejuvenated sounds hinted at a more collaborative future for the band.

While these four songs have become some of my favorites in the band’s catalog, it’s hard to make a strong case for much else on Naked. Maximalist opener “Blind” introduces the album as featuring an “end of Stop Making Sense” number of collaborators (that’s Johnny Marr riffing the absolutely delightful hell out of “Flowers,” while Arthur Russell has a cello cameo on the CD-only track “Bill”), though the back half of the record is loaded with pretty forgettable filler tracks about daddies (“Mommy Daddy You and I,” “Big Daddy,” and, I suppose if your dad’s name is Bill, “Bill”). “Blind” and “The Democratic Circus” get pretty overtly political at the tail end of a presidential administration that made it hard not to be overtly political, though I think these tracks suffer a bit for it when this frustration gets expressed through lyrics rather than funny guitar sounds. At least it inspired the music video for the former track, which combines fake political convention footage recalling Tanner ’88 with that scene in Lost Highway where prison turns Bill Pullman into Balthazar Getty (oh, and there’s a drooling wrench in it?).

It must not have been long after I first dove into Naked that Billboard interviewed Chris Frantz and producer Steve Lillywhite about the album, looking back on its legacy on what was, unbeknownst to me, its 30th anniversary back in 2018. Among other things the piece answered the question of what happened to the album that its cover feels so much less iconic today than the other two records it shares the bottom three slots with on every single ranking of Talking Heads LPs. Basically, Byrne had checked out at this point and refused to tour behind the album or promote it in any way, leaving Frantz and bandmate/partner Tina Weymouth to do a speaking tour instead (Frantz recalled the group’s unpleasant final show together when we spoke with him about his book a few years back). It’s kind of a bummer that Naked landed with such a thud when its themes of rebirth and primalism and wholly rejuvenated sounds hinted at a more collaborative future for the band, as Lillywhite notes in the piece.

I guess I wasn’t really surprised to see that the 35th anniversary of the album came and went last week without any buzz, considering “35” is a pretty weird anniversary to celebrate for an album, let alone the fact that it’s a pretty weird album (it seems like it was a coincidence, but Far Out Magazine did reopen the ugly can of worms that is the band’s breakup on the date of Naked’s anniversary). I am surprised that the past five years of being very aware of this album hasn’t connected me with any of its supporters among my generation in person, let alone the fact that I’ve still never encountered any mention of Naked in the wilds of the internet without a premeditated search. To me it almost feels like a tiny but culturally fertile civilization leaving behind nothing but “Flowers” as evidence of its existence. FL