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It’s the summer of 1979. A fifteen-year-old boy listens to WNEW on the radio in his bedroom in Brooklyn. A monotone voice (it’s the singer’s) announces into dead air in between songs “The Talking Heads have a new album, it’s called Fear of Music” – and everything spins outward from that one moment.
Jonathan Lethem treats Fear of Music (the third album by the Talking Heads, and the first produced by Brian Eno) as a masterpiece – edgy, paranoid, funky, addictive, rhythmic, repetitive, spooky and fun. He scratches obsessively at the album’s songs, guitars, rhythms, lyrics, packaging, downtown origins, and legacy, showing how Fear of Music hints at the directions (positive and negative) the band would take in the future. Lethem transports us again to the New York City of another time – tackling one of his great adolescent obsessions and illuminating the ways in which we fall in and out of love with works of art.
Part of Continuum's "33 1/3" series of short books about specific albums of the last 40 years.
His achievement in Fear of Music is to let his personal passion for the album inform his thoughts on it with a vital urgency, without ever allowing those feelings to run rampant and obscure the work at hand. …[It is] a powerful piece of scholarship on a band that deserves, and whose work holds up to, close examination of the serious kind Lethem does here. [Lethem] revels in Fear of Music's strain, the way it encompasses punk and disco, aggression and passivity, paranoia and resolve, gleefully dancing its way off the brink. This ain't no party, indeed. The Atlantic
The collision of Lethem and Talking Heads makes perfect sense. Both can’t escape being identified with New York – or, in Lethem’s case, Brooklyn – and despite working in disparate modes, each brings the formalism and precision of the high arts to popular forms. Salon.com
Lethem analyzes each of the songs in his book, alternating between close readings of lyrics, song structure, and meditations on the album as a whole. …His prose is as sharp as ever, and his visual evocations demand accompaniment by the tracks themselves. As he puts it in the epigraph, “turn it up, for f--k's sake. The Daily Beast
This ain't no party/ This ain't no disco/ This ain't no foolin' around. No, this is music criticism, and in the right hands it's serious business. The latest installment in the addictive 33 1/3 line of music books—each of which pairs an author with an iconic pop album—finds novelist Jonathan Lethem in deep consultation with his 15-year-old self over the secret messages hidden all over Talking Heads' third album, Fear of Music. …When Lethem's really on a roll, as he is through most of this, overthinking becomes contagious. Details
Jonathan Lethem is, by a couple of orders of magnitude, the most famous writer to have published a 33 1/3 volume, and Fear of Music, his tribute to Talking Heads' third album, is something of a watershed for the series. He clearly knows this, too, and the knowledge makes Fear of Music a more anxious, self-aware text than many of its brethren. …add Lethem's Fear of Music, and Talking Heads', to what remains of your collection; it wouldn't be complete without them. Los Angeles Review of Books
In his new book Fear of Music, Jonathan Lethem delivers an impassioned, hilarious and unabashedly personal take on the classic Talking Heads album of the same name. Wired.com
...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...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. The Millions
The book, part of the 33 1/3 series, is full of long, brilliant passages of music criticism interspersed with riffs on topics such as science fiction, paranoia, fame, and Asperger’s syndrome. But it’s at its most interesting at those moments when Lethem tilts the mirror of autobiographical reflection at just the right angle to reflect both himself and the music of Talking Heads in some new light. Slate.com
[Lethem is] attuned not only to what's definitely in the songs, but also what they hint at, the relationships between them...The message Lethem reads into Fear of Music is essentially that to live is to be in constant conflict, both with self-expression and with everything around you. The astute listener will verify—he hits the nail on the head…In the very same manner that Fear of Music the album touches on these conflicting worlds, highlighting the spaces where they bleed into one another, so Lethem captures the essence of an album, a band, and an era in his book. Julia Rose Roberts, Stereo Subversion
Jonathan Lethem is one of the most acclaimed American novelists of his generation. His books include Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, and Chronic City. His essays about James Brown and Bob Dylan have appeared in Rolling Stone. He is Roy Edward Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College, US.