Talking Heads / "Once in a Lifetime"
These are the questions I ask myself every day.
By the time this track came out -- it was the lead-off track of Side 2 on 1980's Remain in Light LP -- the Talking Heads had evolved from the herky-jerky nerds I first saw a year earlier at the Mudd Club and Central Park. Yes, the lyrics were still cryptic and not a little weird; yes, the production values were still stripped-down. But a world-music polyphonic groove had been added to the mix, and David Byrne's half-strangulated vocals now floated over a quite serious groove.
What makes this a great track -- and it is a truly great track -- is how these brainy New Wavers captured the seismic generational shift going on. Byrne, in an almost robotic monotone, marvels "And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile / And you may find yourself in a beautiful house / With a beautiful wife." Yeah, for an earlier generation that was the dream, but for our generation that was so explicitly NOT the dream. And yet and yet and yet...
"And you may ask yourself / Well...how did I get here?" HOW INDEED?
In contrast the choruses are legato, deeply grooved, and copasetic. He's "letting the days go by," with water flowing underground, erasing all contradictions. That sinuous rhythm ticks on, lifting everything, like the water dissolving whatever stands in its path. Overlapping motifs interweave, keeping it all blessedly fluid.
But questions and conflicts remain. In verse 2 he's still stressed out, questioning "How do I work this?" and denying the very existence of his supposed assets -- that beautiful house, that beautiful wife.
There we were, my generation, committed to doing things differently and yet now seduced by the trappings of material comfort. It wasn't a choice we could easily resolve, which is why the song rattles on and on, the water flowing underground. But in the long run, the line that hammers home is "Same as it ever was / Same as it ever was / Same as it ever was..." Because we baby boomers thought we'd changed the world, and yet -- did we?
And here were these art-school nerds, calling our bluff.