Talking Heads are one of a handful of seminal rock bands whose catalog has been curiously overlooked in the CD era. Their albums have not been remastered, their legendary 1982 double-live album, The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, has never made it to disc, and apart from 1992's Popular Favorites 1976-1992: Sand in the Vaseline, there has been no retrospective assembled (to make matters worse, in the U.K. that set was condensed to the single-disc The Best of Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime). So, Rhino/WSM's 2003 box set Once in a Lifetime (sure, the title is repeated, but what else could it reasonably be called?) is noteworthy for many reasons, because it marks the first remastering of the group's catalog (and the new sound is terrific), marks the first time any of The Name of This Band reached CD (alas, there's only one cut, "A Clean Break (Let's Work)," which never made it to another album), unearths a few rarities, and most importantly, provides an excellent three-disc retrospective on this seminal quartet.
These three discs run 54 tracks, which is quite a bit more generous than it sounds, since all Talking Heads' studio albums apart from their last, 1988's Naked, are represented by over half of their songs (counting alternate takes, but not outtakes; these alternates are notably but not radically different, though "Cities" has brand new words), often coming three or four cuts from the total. Thematically, the three discs are sharply arranged, accentuating different eras for the band. After three early sides, all found on Sand in the Vaseline, the first disc is largely devoted to the debut Talking Heads: 77 and its 1978 sequel, More Songs About Buildings and Food. Instead of following strict chronological order on this collection, the two albums are interwoven, to play up at first the tense, nervy post-punk of early Talking Heads, and then it steadily reveals their growing immersion in funk and African rhythms. This has the effect of slightly downplaying Brian Eno's contributions to More Songs, but he returns to the forefront on disc two, which captures Talking Heads at their creative peak for 1979's Fear of Music, 1980's Remain in Light, and 1983's Speaking in Tongues, which is when their collaboration with Eno ended. This is the sound of classic Talking Heads -- David Byrne spitting out frenzied, fractured words over the tightly wound yet supple art-funk grooves laid down by Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, given melodic flair by Jerry Harrison. It's filled with timeless moments: "I Zimbra" filtering Fela Kuti through the New York boho punk; the deliriously paranoid "Life During Wartime," as potent during the war on terrorism as it was during the cold war; the brilliant "Once in a Lifetime," still Byrne's signature piece; "Crosseyed and Painless," spinning early hip-hop into uptight punk-funk; the Technicolor burst of "Burning Down the House," the single that brought them into the Top Ten; the sweet, aching "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)." Disc three deals with the aftermath of this brilliant run. At first, the group scaled the groove back and turned toward relatively straight-ahead pop with 1985's Little Creatures, represented here by such songs as "And She Was," "Stay Up Late," and the careening "Road to Nowhere," all of which retain their potency. After that, the box loses momentum as Talking Heads lost momentum, stumbling through the film project True Stories (which did produce a couple of pretty good songs in "Wild Wild Life," "Love for Sale," and "People Like Us") before ending after the worldbeat inclinations of Naked (containing the excellent "(Nothing But) Flowers" and the pretty good "Blind"; "In Asking Land" was an outtake released here for the first time, and it's not particularly noteworthy).
If Once in a Lifetime does run out of steam toward the end, it has to be said that it doesn't outstay its welcome, and apart from a track or two at the very end, this is a compelling, entertaining listen from start to finish. Although it bypasses Stop Making Sense entirely, it's not missed, and it's hard to quibble with the track selection ("The Great Curve" is the only song that perhaps should have been here but isn't, and for only one song out of eight albums, that's not bad at all), which means Once in a Lifetime is about a good of a retrospective as could be imagined, if judged just on musical terms. But this box set offers more than music. There's a fourth disc, a DVD that is an expanded version of their video collection Storytelling Giant, containing all the group's videos by adding clips from True Stories, Naked, and Sand in the Vaseline to the original programming. This is hardly padding or an extra feature; it's an integral part of the box set, since there was always a strong visual element to Talking Heads, and they were one of the great pioneers in music video. Watching the videos of Storytelling Giant now, decades after their original release, it's startling how they remain fresh even as their production techniques age. "Once in a Lifetime," "Burning Down the House," and "And She Was" are still played frequently, at least on VH1-Classic, but lesser-known videos for "Crosseyed and Painless" and "Road to Nowhere" are equally vibrant (and that's to say nothing about the nostalgia trip "Love for Sale" provides; intended as a commentary on advertising, it's now a time capsule of slogans, logos, and lingo from ads from 1986, making it a delight for entirely different reasons than the rest of the collection).
While the DVD is more than welcome, the packaging is a little problematic. It's designed as a long narrow book, with rather garishly precious artwork, and the discs are inserted into pouches within the covers of the book. This design makes it difficult to read the numerous essays, which are all designed as reminiscences, whether it's from all four bandmembers, rock critic David Fricke, novelist Rick Moody, performance artist Maggie Estep, or other assorted New York luminaries. These are generally good and interesting, and the collection of press clippings of the time is rather brilliant, but a basic history would have been welcome. Then again, this set isn't really designed to be read or played -- it's designed to be looked at once or twice, then sat on the shelf. Which is too bad, because those three CDs are everything a Talking Heads retrospective should be and the DVD is essential viewing. It's enough to keep the box from being essential itself.