Once in a lifetime – Talking Heads


It’s not exactly out on a limb to suggest that this one’s a banger, but I want to talk about how it actually makes me feel.

Surrounded by water. Drowning, swimming. Lost and confused, but held.

Once in a lifetime.

Partly it’s familiarity. It’s hard to argue with a song you’ve heard a million times before, one whose shimmering, stuttering video feels like a part of history.

But there’s more than that. There’s this rigid, jerky instrumental, under a glistening sea of synthesised radiation. And then there’s David.

It’s not enough to be a song about angst, about fear and not knowing. The words matter, but they aren’t the everything. You can hear it in the quiver of the voice, the strange desperation.

My god, what have I done

Even outside the lytics, the chorus argues with itself, pulling in two directions. Upward and downward. But the song pushes relentlessly forward. Just like the progress that David feels terrified of.

When I first hear that intro, my heart shudders. There’s this recognition, and this contentment. But there’s a thread under the contentment, a thread of fear and incomprehension. Am I really ready to have the rug pulled from under me? Am I ready to question where I am?

And you may ask yourself, How do I work this?

And that’s incredible. Because that’s the theme of the lyrics. That’s what the song is about, or at least part of it. Contentment, undermined but held on to. A fear of letting go of the thing that traps you. A fear of life.

David breaks down, pulled apart by large automobiles, worn down by water above, and below. But throughout he is preaching, beckoning and holding on.

The final guitar rips through the top of the song. Just thick, weighted noise. The whole song is thick with shifts in texture over a static but lustrous rhythm.

Just try and focus down on the core drum beat. It’s heart thumping. Just this simple, open heartbeat. It’s impossible to keep attention at just that level. Everything else wraps around it, and plays with it.

The bass is strapped right into it, that stark throb of bass. It’s a voice at the bottom of everything. Some ominous refrain, flowing underneath. Keyboards jut into it, with gripping little details and immense bursts of counterpoint.

And that shimmering, glistening layer of water.

There’s so many details here, but all of it is just lost, drowned and only occasionally bubbling to prominence.

At heart, this is a song, a song that is mostly spoken. A song that is mostly shouted.

And the words, tear at me. And the voice, tears at me. The one brief torrent of distortion and echo is terrifying. The call and response is haunting and uplifting. The whole piece is water. The thing you swim in, but can’t see.

I still can’t work out if they’re tears of joy or pain.

It may well be both.

It’s incredible to see an honest to goodness pop hit that holds those multitudes within. Something about pain that is irresistibly uplifting. Something that is so cheerfully terrifying.

Let the days go by. Water flows underground. Once in a lifetime.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. A once in the lifetime chance to let the days go by.

What should I ask myself?

There is water at the bottom of the ocean.

And I’m swimming there.