David Bowie: From Low to Lodger
Paul Yamada | New York Rocker | July 1979
THE LAST TWO studio LPs by David Bowie seem to make up some sort of unit. The release of a third album in collaboration with Brian Eno — perhaps their last together for a while — calls for a thorough analysis and appraisal of this most recent phase of Bowie’s career.
I feel compelled to briefly sum up Bowie’s earlier work and put it, too, into perspective. As a result of this, I have assumed that Bowie’s previous records can be seen in multi-dimensional way, but not in a way that clearly implies a linear progression. After all, Bowie’s music is idiomatic and ahistorical (up to a point), and is not a continuous flow of style and approach: and when there is no one style and approach, there can be no clear-cut progression of species to species.
It has become a cliché that David Bowie is a man of many faces and poses. He has been accused of being no more than a poser, someone who changes with the sounds and trends of pop music. This view cannot be taken seriously, but there is some grain of truth in it. One ought to notice that his bunch of albums represents an interesting cross-section of styles, of miniature idioms of rock and pop.
In short, Bowie’s music up to Diamond Dogs can be seen as a combination of several styles or idioms: folk, folk-rock, pop, hard rock, psychedelia. He is always capable of writing and performing these styles with proficiency and sometimes excellence. Almost everything he has done up through Station To Station is serious, intentional, well-crafted and thought-out: but it’s hard to tell if it is sincere. Young Americans and Station To Station simply compound this problem by adding to the number of styles employed: funk, disco, Euro-pop and electronic, just to name the most obvious.
His talent and approach should be clear. Bowie is innovative and creative, but he is not a creator, not an innovator. Nor is he consistently a synthesizer of styles who fuses them into something different — he draws too frequently and selectively for that. Nor does his music sound derivative enough to be called a fusion of styles. I see Bowie through a genetic metaphor. Like any unique RNA molecule, he started out with a certain amount of ‘information,’ based on the styles and influences encountered during his early recording activity. As he continued and endured, he came into contact with new or different input, which he selectively replicated for himself and incorporated into his enlarged core of styles. But the music he produced was more than replication, because as it was reproduced the new styles mixed and adhered to the old. The product was old and new, different and unique, and after each endeavor Bowie emerged ready to do something else. It would bear some resemblance to previous work, it would still be identifiable as David Bowie, but it would also have the characteristics of a different organism, something new and unexpected.
Bowie does not borrow what he cannot transform — one almost never hears something in a Bowie song that sounds stolen. That, perhaps, is his greatest talent, not only because it keeps him from sounding like a thief but because it provides him with a constant source of individuality. He seems to posses a capacity to transmogrify his sources and influences to the point where they become his own, if only in some transparent or ephemeral way.
Unfortunately, Bowie’s desire to change is as strong as his ability to effect change and take on new sources and directions. He rarely continues his experiments and adaptations long enough for them to seem complete, or thought thorough beyond his present LP. Most recently, the elegiac and hopeful aspects of Station To Station were quickly abandoned for the complexity and murkiness of Low. This was in part continued through ‘Heroes’, but seems to have been casually abandoned in Lodger.
The move from Station To Station to Low is dramatic, severe and bleak. One moves from the spiritual-like sentiments of ‘Word On A Wing,’ a moving and simple prayer, to several blighted studies of alienation on Low. ‘Word On A Wing’ is Bowie offering a powerful hope; Low does not say all hope is gone, but it does study people and situations lacking the power to hope. Even the cover photo from The Man Who Fell To Earth seems to indicate that Bowie is for the moment obsessed with alienation, resignation, powerlessness. The very image of ‘Breaking Glass’ is troubled, taciturn, helpless; and the woman he speaks to ("Such a wonderful person/But ya got problems") stands as a silent image of stalemate, a hapless situation.
‘What In The World,’ though less definite about the subject, has a similar tone. Both the speak and the spoken-to are deep in their room, encased in gloom, and what in the world can they do? The answer seems obvious: nicht! ‘Always Crashing’ is just as dim or worse: "Every chance I take/I take on the road... Always going left and right/Always crashing in the same car." Seems like this is the voice of some one always moving, going nowhere, unable to take any risks except the most inane one of reckless driving. It’s meaningless and depressing, a portrait of life reduced to the operation of a machine, not quite out of control but out of one’s senses and personality — a bizarre form of alienation in modern society.
‘Be My Wife’ is not so depressing. The speaker expresses resignation rather than utter hopelessness. There is something left — marriage, the desire to share life even if this is going to be passionless, it seems sincere. At least this voice is better off than the ones above. Perhaps the jaunty, almost happily melodic instrumental, ‘A New Career In A New Town’ is meant to wordlessly suggest that everyday people can do something to ease their plight. If so, it isn’t very convincing.
Seen in this light, ‘Sound And Vision’ sticks out on the first side. It could be autobiographical, though I imagine it reflects a vague attempt by Bowie to talk about making music: ‘I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision.’ All the input is from technological media, and everything he absorbs comes out in his own sound and vision. This is probably as close as Bowie can come to an artistic statement. Add to his transparency, vagueness.
As for the music, much of it is nothing short of brilliant. While the basic recording techniques are the standard sound-on-sound, vertical, layered approach to rock music, Bowie and Eno add tracks, sounds, repeated noises which come out at the listener in a horizontal way, as if in bas-relief. When combined with the electronic instrumentation, the result is stunning, the textures rich, the overall sound unlike most rock records or even many strictly electronic ventures. ‘Speed Of Life’ and ‘Sound And Vision’ are the best in this category. Only the recent work of Eno (solo and with German duo Cluster) and Michael Rother attain this kind of delicacy and thematic strength with consistency. That Bowie could do one cut this good the first time out is amazing. (For more of these sounds, check out Michael Rother’s Sterntaler LP.)
The most aggressive and moving music is ‘Warszawa’. If there is music emerging from rock and its borders that approaches classical conceptions of structure and movement, then this piece belongs in that camp. It uses four sections, one a refrain, to convey a wide range of tone, melody, texture, mood and emotion. The first builds from one-note repetition into mournful chords, changing its emotive tone and tension through a mixture of Gregorian and Eastern European folk music. The second section, more melodically hopeful, uses more keyboard tracks and electronic tones, and surprisingly eases the tension and mood. The third section again changes the mood. Bowie sings/chants with Middle Eastern inflection as the organ, devices and chorus respond with the solemnity of a mass. The fourth and last section returns to the more harmonious and uplifting second section. It’s beautiful and unpretentious, easily the most significant track on the record.
Other cuts on this side are not as adventurous as ‘Warszawa.’ ‘Art Decade’ provides some emotional space; it’s pleasant but not significant. ‘Weeping Wall,’ with its brief quote of ‘Scarborough Fair,’ is more interesting. Bowie plays everything — as Eno did on ‘Warszawa’ — and what stands out is that the song has two distinct musical elements. One theme or pattern of notes is expressed through vibraphone and xylophone tracks, while another, more dominant theme plays over and through it on piano and harp. The themes are not striking or complex, but competent enough for the venture to succeed. ‘Subterraneans’ seem modeled after ‘Warszawa,’ though it’s not as good. Because the song lacks tonal and melodic fullness, its own weight makes it occasionally ponderous. Bowie’s sax playing doesn’t help. Put simply, it is good but missing something.
Altogether, the music on Low is exceptional. The primarily electronic pieces are at least very good, and the more rock-oriented cuts meets more practiced European standards of melody and texture. Bowie knows how to use drums, guitars and timing to great effect. The album’s bleakness, occasional tedium and varied approaches don’t impede accomplishment. It is bold and startlingly mature. ‘Heroes’, though similar is less so.
What can be pieced together as a common concern in the songs on Low is dissipated on ‘Heroes’. ‘Beauty And The Beast’ implies that there is some awful split nature lurking in people, but there is no clear message. ‘‘Heroes’’ forcefully depicts two people in a lost cause, hope their only possible victory. But by the third verse, Bowie’s agonized delivery turns the hope, through brutal desperation and irony, into delusion. There is no hope here, and finally the speaker sees it: "We’re nothing/And nothing will help us/Maybe we’re lying" — and even the realization is pointless. For the doomed and defeated must cling to false hope: "But we could be safer/Just for one day."
These cuts are the only convincing evidence of insight here, of any serious look at human frailty, suffering alienation and hope. ‘Joe The Lion’ resorts to cheap shots ("You can buy God...Guess you’ll buy a gun...secondhand") while taking on a complex subject — daily drudgery, frustrated dreams — and tries to find resolution through a fortune teller who tells nothing. The over-dramatization of ‘Sons Of The Silent Age’ obscures whatever point it has to make. Individual lines work, but nothing fits together. The panic-stricken and (I guess) love-stricken character of ‘Blackout’ is vivid, but his fears and emotions are not substantiated or developed. It’s hard to recognize, much less relate to, his plight. The lone vocal on the second side, ‘The Secret Life Of Arabia,’ passes as an exotic sketch of a far-flung scenario, "you must see the movie" says it all. Certainly the lyrics to ‘‘Heroes’’ are the best, and enhanced by one of Bowie’s finer vocal efforts; there is no singing this good on Low.
The music on the vocal tracks ranges from very good to almost nothing. The introductory piano on ‘Beauty and The Beast’ is metronomically menacing, as are the snaking synthesizer sounds which erupt at regular intervals. Rock-hard drumming helps out, as do the many other guitar and synthetic/electronic tracks. Its jarring edge is completely successful: however, nowhere on this track or anywhere else on ‘Heroes’ are there the thick, horizontal qualities that made the sound of Low so engaging. The production is dense, but rounded at the edges, more polished, less truly electronic. ‘Joe The Lion’ and ‘Blackout’ are basically just slick rockers, spruced up with concise effects, reducing the electronic approach and devices to more studio wizardry. Drums and guitars to the brunt of the work, and there’s actually a guitar hook on ‘Joe The Lion’ — a good one at that — to which the closing solo does little justice. ‘Heroes’ uses one basic riff and chord sequence, over and over. The repetition is deserving of the lyrics, since that is where the change occurs. ‘Sons Of The Silent Age’ suffers from tacky and inadequate sax, and sounds almost like a throwback to Ziggy Stardust. The drumming, chorus melody and use of background singers come directly from songs like ‘Five Years,’ ‘Soul Love,’ and ‘Lady Stardust.’ ‘Sons’ may be less pop-oriented, but unusual jewelry doesn’t significantly alter the costume. ‘The Secret Life Of Arabia’ is disco, right down to the insistent bass line, the thump-thump drumming and the handclaps at the end. Compared to cuts on Young Americans and Station To Station, this is formula, uninspired and derivative at that.
The remaining four instrumentals, though not quite up to Low’s level, are good, better overall than the vocals. ‘V-2 Schneider’ has the full accompaniment of a rhythm section and with its simple melody sounds more like rock ‘n’ roll than its forerunners on Low. This leads into ‘Sense Of Doubt,’ a ponderous work filled with empty, drifting spaces, carried by first a three, then a four-note motif. The more melodic and placid middle section is what makes this one work, even if the motif is a bit overdone. Although not quite in a league with Low’s second side, ‘Sense Of Doubt’ is good. Wind-like sounds melt into the beginning of ‘Moss Garden’ a serenely electronic piece of beautiful composure. Bowie’s koto work tends to irritatingly dominate the proceedings because there’s little thematic connection between his playing and the lush keyboards. Nonetheless, the mood of repose is wonderfully sustained and the bird-like sounds are quite a delight.
This piece ends with the jet-like noise that followed the winds, and a gurgle of electronic sound ushers in ‘Neukoln.’ Its mood is pensive, full of anxiety. It shifts occasionally to let Bowie blow and attempted fusion of avant-garde jazz and Eastern melody on his sax. If his playing had more color and wider variation of tone, this piece would be the best of the bunch. It does not, however, surpass ‘Sense Of Doubt,’ save for a few hysterical moments at the end where Bowie plays by himself leaving a lonely, dying sound as the song’s last gasp. Even if the three straight instrumentals are not as consistent as those on Low, they are good attempts to move beyond the rock format, and deserve commendation for what they are. All in all, ‘Heroes’ is a more conventional LP, with closer links to Bowie’s pop and disco past than Low: but it is also a continuation of some of Low’s concerns and brilliant experiments. If only that were true of Lodger.
There are startling instrumental passages on Lodger, but there are no instrumentals Bowie uses electronic devices and violin well, but never as the primary vehicle of songs, which are basically rock-oriented. Even more devastating, the lyrics have no theme, and several deliberately avoid saying much of anything. ‘Fantastic Voyage,’ a very pop ballad recalling ‘Word On A Wing,’ sues schmaltzy mandolins, and though it makes a pretense at protest, it just isn’t serious. It speaks of the value of individual lives, but its only answer is: "Cause we’ll/I’ll never say anything again/How can I?" So what?
‘African Night Flight’ uses percussion and growling electronics nicely, bit its foolish and egotistical narrator can’t grasp Africa except for random details. The few lines of African chant are eerie, but no more. ‘Move On,’ which tells of a love that no wandering or "sightseeing" can displace, is convincing. Bowie sings well and conveys a degree of anguish, but why? What’s going on here besides a three-minute travelogue? Motiveless pain is numbing, not moving. The giddy-up music works, but it’s just a lot of craft for a little substance.
‘Yassassin’ is Turkish disco (!), relying heavily on a chanted chorus of the title, Simon House’s violin drives the Middle Eastern flavor home, making the music trudge wearily. It seems to be a peasant love song, extolling a "proud and lustful" people who "don’t want to leave/or drift away". This kind of exotica is briefly engaging, but finally plastic — the stuff of Hollywood scripts. ‘Red Sails’ continues the international music barrage, using a second hand Japanese motif, with Bowie singing like a Westerner might think a Japanese would speak English ("Do you remember/We another person"). The thundering drums, insistent chanting of ‘Red Sails,’ and a few synthesizer outbreaks help it along until the end. At that point, the song turns oddly Germanic, sounding much like a cut from a recent Rother/Cluster LP. The lyrics do a nice job of detailing cultural displacement, but again there seems to be no point.
On Side Two, ‘D.J.’ shows some of the dissonant and disturbed qualities of ‘Beauty And The Beast’ or ‘Joe The Lion’ and is even more obsessed, more manic. The arrogance and self-absorption of the d.j. ("I am what I play/I’ve got believers/Believing me") are no cause for drama. If either the d.j. or the scene were endowed with more ruthlessness, more power and authority, it might work. Instead, the songs remains a cliché, played well and with wasted imagination. ‘Look Back In Anger,’ about an angel, is thunderously blunt. Yet it never gets past the scenario stage. It is competent, sometimes compelling hard rock with a slight disco edge, without anger or reason. The new U.K. 45, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, could be a hit. It’s full of trivial generalizations, disco camp about boys (minus references to overt homosexuality), and breezy stupidity. When Bowie sings "They’ll never clone ya," I respond with Robert Calvert’s "I am a clone, but that’s the spirit of the age" — a more honest, if no more intelligent sentiment. And all this prattle is crowned by the best two minutes of electronic dissonance and adventurousness on the record. What in the hell for? Why couldn’t this have been worked into something truly worthwhile?
‘Repetition’ is neat, haunting, uneasy. Nothing insightful is said about Johnny or his wife, unless "And he could have married Anne with the blue silk blouse" suggests something beyond dimly remembered sensualism. At the end, Bowie does make some effort by repeating "it shows through" (from "But the space in her eyes shows through"), a nice psychological touch with a hint of emotive realism.
The beginning of ‘Red Money’ sounds like the tune will be a ballad or mid-tempo melodic number. Not a chance: instead, a chanting, funky song with a guitar line played over and over, and some fine synthesizer work. It’s very programmatic, and the electronic bursts don’t challenge the insistent pattern of the song. The chanting style of vocals has a deadening effect, which works well with the occasional emotion in Bowie’s voice. What this is all about is anybody’s guess. And so we come to the close of a frustrating but well-crafted LP that is much less than it appears to be.
Compared to Low and ‘Heroes’, this is more than a retreat. Lodger simply uses electronics, dissonance and thick textures. It does not allow them to do any independent work, to carry any weight by themselves. The songs are ordinary by Bowie’s recent standards; they say little, have slight content, and hide behind exotic and foreign circumstances. The true ‘lodger,’ the refugee from everywhere, would have more to say, more at stake, and could never be so passionless, so facile. There is still good music here, well-played, unusual, once in a while excellent. The LP is easy to listen to because it rarely challenges the listener; it only baits you with slick and highly embossed surfaces. It is not really a departure from Low and ‘Heroes’, but a rejection of their serious nature. Obviously beyond the learning stages of new techniques, instrumentation, and form, Bowie has painlessly replicated bits and pieces here for our delight, without offering anything solid to delight in. I hope this is a passing phase, because few others could make a record amounting to so little with so much put into it. It is not mediocre, but it is poorly thought out, callous, simple-minded, and complacent. You can’t help liking parts of it, but if you really liked Low, liked ‘Heroes’, and generally like the challenging side of Bowie’s previous works, you can’t help feeling cheated and dismayed by this one.