In a piece for Pitchfork earlier this year, Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo recalled an experience she had in a Parisian jazz school. In 1983, she correctly argued that Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” was inspired by African music, despite her classmate’s insistence that she was mistaken. Now, decades later, Kidjo once again drives the point home with her own reimagining of Talking Heads epic 1980 album, Remain in Light, taking their Afrobeat inspiration one step further by leaning fully into it.
Covers can be difficult. Despite an artist’s best intentions, it’s easy to fall into the trap of either going too far in the reinterpretation of a classic, or not going far enough and leaving the listener wanting for the original. Kidjo manages to do neither, her version of Remain in Light breathing new life into what was already an incredible album — not an easy task, given how critically acclaimed Remain in Light is, how prolific and well known its songs are even today. Talking Heads’ original performances on Remain in Light still hold up nearly 40 years later, and still Kidjo is able to give the album an update fans didn’t even know that it needed.
In the 1980s, Talking Heads made African music approachable to their primarily white, western listeners by merging it with rock, pop, funk, and electronica influences. Kidjo, meanwhile, brings the African influence to the forefront, her authenticity in this particular genre lending credence and making it approachable in an entirely new way. Elements of the original recordings are kept, tweaked, and made new. Each song is completely transformed while maintaining the integrity of the originals and yet they almost end up feeling more meaningful under Kidjo’s masterful hand (“Crosseyed and Painless” and “Listening Wind” are two that come to mind).
David Byrne sounds defiant and pessimistic, almost critical, in his vocals, in the same way that James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem) often does, leaning into a cerebral takedown of society and the world around him. Kidjo’s reinterpretation does the same (when she sings “the world moves on a woman’s hips,” you feel that she has lived this reality, much more than Byrne ever will), but surprisingly instills a sense of optimism in both the lyrics and melodies that Talking Heads never really managed. Talking Heads, even at their most upbeat, heralded their disenchantment with society in a way that spoke of decaying inevitability. Kidjo, on the other hand, feels like an awakening after a long struggle, reclaiming what is rightfully yours. There’s a joy found in her Remain in Light that I was surprised to realize is lacking in the original. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in “Once in a Lifetime,” the standout track for Kidjo just as it was for Talking Heads. She brings optimism to the arguably not very optimistic lyrics through the power and warmth of her voice, backed by a carefree chorus, interesting percussion, and uplifting horns.
Same as it ever was, and yet completely different.
Remain in Light is a success, not just as a reimagining of a classic album, but as a piece of original music. If I had never heard of Talking Heads and someone told me that this album was an Angélique Kidjo original, I’d have no problem believing it.