For the composition of Remain in Light (including “Once in a Lifetime”), Byrne built on the layered, production-centered composition techniques that developed from his collaboration with Brian Eno on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Essentially, the band went in with a blank slate and built up grooves, starting with a guitar lick or a drum beat. Others would add parts to the track. (All quotes are from Byrne’s How Music Works .)
After the tracks began to fill up, or when the sound of them playing simultaneously was sufficiently dense, it was time to make sections. While the groove usually remained constant, different combinations of instruments would be switched on and off simultaneously at different given times. One group of instruments that produced a certain texture and groove might eventually be nominated as a “verse” section, and another group — often larger-sounding — would be nominated as the “chorus.” Often in these songs there was no real key change. The bass line tended to remain constant, but one could still imply key modulations, illusory chord changes, which were useful for building excitement while maintaining the trance-like feeling of constant root notes. (p. 158)
Basically, they took away many of the regular composition tricks. “While punk rock was celebrated for needing only three chords, we had now stripped that down to one.” (p. 159) Writing melodies over these tracks was necessarily more difficult but he points out that this method has one main advantage: “more emphasis gets placed on the groove.”
This made the tracks feel more trance-like… [The songs] were … very much about texture. The changes from one section to another were sometimes driven more by textural variation than by melody or harmony. (p. 159)
As for the lyrics…
The gently ecstatic nature of the tracks meant that angsty personal lyrics like the ones I’d written previously might not be the best match, so I had to find some new lyrical approach. (p. 160)
In keeping with the rapturous nature of some of the tracks, I was also drawing lyrical inspiration from the radio preachers I’d been listening to and that we’d used on the Bush of Ghosts record…. The radio was shouting at you, pleading with you , and seducing you. There was a serious use of anaphora — employing the same phrase to begin each sentence. It’s a common device that preachers us, and it brings their speechifying one step closer to poetry and song…. [T]he repetition of the phrase “You may find yourself,” for example, — were straight lifts from the radio preacher, bur from there I’d improvise and change the focus from a Christian message to, well, I wasn’t sure at first what I was getting at. (p. 162)
Okay, enough reading, here’s a video from a British Talking Heads documentary:
Americana singer-songwriter Josh Ritter goes off on a tangent at one of his concerts. He really milks that preacher style and looks like he’s receiving the light when he gets to the chorus:
Byrne says they couldn’t play these songs as a four piece, but he does a credible job with Crowded House (I love the guy with the mallet in the center behind Neil Finn at keyboards [the "Eno seat"]).
Pushing the trance aspect:
The Smashing Pumpkins deconstruct (not to the best effect) “Once in a Lifetime” (I link for completeness, but there’s a reason I didn’t embed — it kind of sucks). Here’s another link to what it would sound like if Nico (from the VU) covered the song.
A nice acoustic sound featuring a singer with a great accent:
Just wanted to point out the great Talking Heads cover band names:
This Must Be the Band, We Are Not Talking Heads, Start Making Sense, The Rocking Heads
Does the ecstatic groove remain when the Muppets cover “Once in a Lifetime”?: