Sampling became one of the most significant new techniques in record production during the 1980s, and although its influence on subsequent uses made of samples is debated, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was probably the first album to make them a central plank. David Byrne and Brian Eno had been collaborating extensively on Talking Heads albums, but this was released under their own names, and was much more of a studio construct than a band recording, although it certainly features some excellent hand-made rhythm section grooves. In place of bespoke vocals, those grooves are the settings for samples or field recordings, mostly taken from American talk radio stations, and ranging from political interviews to exorcism (including some actual singing along the way). I first encountered this record as a teenager in the mid 1980s, and it had a powerful effect on me. Although it was undeniably funky (and this was a time at which I was first discovering the pleasures of funk), it was stylistically something else. Listening back now I can hear a range of influences, from early electronic dance music to earthy, high-energy Afrobeat, and many points in between, but its various sources are so seamlessly integrated that it simply sounds like its own thing—jerky, infectious, energetic, and atmospheric. At the time it sounded like the music of another planet, one that I wanted desperately to visit.
When the record was released its samples were fresh and contemporary, illustrating an America and a wider world that was as heterogeneous as it was crazy; but at the same time, cut off from their contexts, released to an audience of music enthusiasts with no indication of their provenance or intended meanings, they were already ghosts. Ephemeral, anonymous speech-acts plucked from the ether and repurposed as the dialogue in a fragmentary, refractive psychodrama—body sounds, excised from the experiences that gave rise to them, floating in an expanse of cyclical, trance-like rhythm. Forty years later they are vested with an archival melancholy that is more Sebaldian preservation than it is Burroughs cut-up. These are the voices of individuals whose marks on the world have become enduring in ways that they can never have imagined. Who is that well-spoken exorcist, chuckling at the certainty of his power over the Jezebel spirit he is casting out? In his case, nobody knows, although it is extraordinary to note that the ritual he conducts was broadcast on forces radio in New York in 1980. In other cases the sources of the samples are better documented, but whatever it is the speakers (and sometimes singers) thought they meant, it is simply the audible surface of their speaking that survives the translation from speech to music. Like the stylistic origins of the grooves, these verbal articulations become the fabric of a new set of emergent meanings, resonating against whatever cultural associations happen to present themselves, and probably as far beyond the deliberate intentions of Byrne and Eno as those of the original speakers—mediated physically by microphone capsules, audio cables, pre-amps, compressors, broadcast equipment, radio receivers and speakers, tape-recorders, record production processes, and all the other physical steps in the chain that bring them to my jaded ears in 2021.
This record is rich with the proper erotic charge of dance music. It makes bodies move. I think it’s the tension between that physical, sensual joy, and the phantasmic landscape of its verbal content, that makes My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts such an extraordinarily powerful scant hour of music. This was an era that began to celebrate the superficiality of pleasure, rather than striving to dissemble its potential disconnect from traditional notions of fulfilment, and by entangling such a complex network of verbal meaning through such an intricate and hypnotic rhythmic grid, the album really says everything that 1980s pop-music would strive to tell us about its post-modernity, right at the outset of the decade. At the same time it takes us right back, to pre-modernity, to the grounding reassurance of ritual. In between, the knowable, the rational, the taxonomic, and the modern, float like ghosts.