It was supposedly “the album that finally obliterates the thin line separating arty white pop music and deep black funk,” as David Fricke wrote on the release of Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues. The praise maybe oversells music that is more arty white pop than “deep black funk.” But there’s never been any denying the funkiness of Talking Heads, either, just as there’s never been any denying the soulfulness of Tom Jones. Not that they’re musically comparable artists, but both have incorporated Black musical styles into their own idioms, winning respect on either side of the industry’s segregated line for self-aware re-interpretations of the blues, funk, soul, and R&B, as well as Ghanian high life and Nigerian Afrobeat.
Jones’ late-career reinvention involved showing up on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, covering Prince, working with Wyclef Jean, and making music one might characterize as generally good-humored pop that showcased his still-got-it vocal abilities. In 1999, he took on Speaking in Tongues’ P-Funk-inspired single “Burning Down the House” in a cover that can be called a slick dance-pop interpretation of an art-rock re-interpretation of funk music.
Joined by the Cardigans, Jones belts it out with his typical swagger, while Cardigans’ singer Nina Persson acts as the “foil” writes Patrick Garvin at Pop Culture Experiment in a roundup of the song’s many covers: “She sounded as monotone as he sounded maniacal. And he sounded pretty damn maniacal.”
But Jones doesn’t sound maniacal like David Byrne sounds maniacal. The original track came together from a jam session, with lyrics improvised by Byrne, who shouted random phrases until he found those that best fit the song, changing the Parliament-Funkadelic audience chant “burn down the house!” into “burning down the house,” a line which could mean anything at all. (At one point, he tells NPR, it changed to “Foam Rubber, U.S.A.”) Is it a threat? A panicked outcry? A celebration? A manic lamentation? In Byrne’s anguished yelps one can never tell.
Jones makes “burning down the house” sound like a come-on, set against the iciest of tightly syncopated arrangements, in the most 90s of music videos ever. (Contrast it with the live version above, with P-Funk’s own Bernie Worrell on keyboards, from Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense.) Every cover of the song, and there are many, does its own thing. “The one consistent aspect,” Garvin writes, “is Byrne’s weird lyrics… because they don’t tell a story in a linear sense, they can take on any variety of meanings.”
According to Byrne himself, the song did take on added resonance for him, perfectly in keeping with the 90s rebirth of Tom Jones. “I didn’t really know at the time,” he said in 1984, “but to me… it implies ecstatic rebirth or transcending one’s own self…. In classic psychology, the house is the self. And burning it down is destroying yourself… And the assumption is you get reborn, like a Phoenix from the ashes. See? It’s all there.” Indeed.