Music / Reviews | Posted by Coagulopath
2 days, 13 hours, 17 minutes, 36 seconds ago

There was a fool-me-once quality to Tin Machine’s debut. Overlong, overloud, “artistic” in all the wrong ways, initially it had strong sales (unlike the bass and drums, which had rather the opposite), but the singles gained no traction, and it soon slid from the charts. When Bowie presented EMI with a follow-up, the label refused to release it.

Tin Machine II was finally issued in 1991 by fly-by-night Japanese label Victory Records. This time, nobody indulged Bowie’s vanity project. The press it received was scornful, and the album stalled out at #23 on the UK charts. For six months the band stubbornly toured it to thousand-seat venues, Bowie rapidly burning through his savings in the process. By the end of the tour, Hunt Sales’s drug addiction made it intolerable to go on, and by 1994 the band was over.

It’s a shame, because II is better than I. Time had forged the band into something stronger than their parts: Hunt Sales no longer buries the songs under drum fills, Reeves Gabrels has dialed back the noise, and David shows up with some of his best songwriting in half a decade.

Opener “Baby Universal” is a star witness in the case that the Machine deserved to exist. Driving and punishing: this song has no fat or wasted moments. Curiously, this was written in the earliest days of Tin Machine, before the Sales brothers joined the project. Bowie delivered his best work in a narrow set of circumstances: him and a collaborator, alone. Aside from the Spiders, he rarely benefited from a full band.

Other cuts like “You Belong in Rock and Roll” and “Amlapura” also present David’s maligned new project in a more positive light. The lyrics go to dark places, particularly “Shopping for Girls”, which is about Reeves Gabrels’ encounters with child prostitutes in Thailand (for an article, natch). They’re more diverse: the guitars shimmer and splash rather than just grinding like a rusty gate, and the songwriting has a bit of dynamism to it: it’s flowing water, where TMI was a series of stagnant and scum-encrusted pools.

Which is not to say TMII belongs with the best Bowie albums, or the mid-rank. “One Shot” is just obnoxious, laughably oversung by Bowie, with awful Europop “wooo-hoo-hoo” backing vocals from Tony Hunt. Astonishingly, this was a single. Perhaps Victory wanted their customers to have a beer coaster. “Stateside” is musical irrelevance personified. “A Big Hurt” is an unconvincing dad-rock take on hardcore punk.

The direst moment is “Sorry”, a musical head cold with Hunt Sales on vocals. He sounds terrible, the music meanders, and the whole thing prays to be on a floor of a cutting room variety.

Just as TMII seems to be gassing out, it delivers the greatest song in the band’s existence and the best thing David Bowie wrote in ten years. “Goodbye Mr Ed” is a threnody sung in the ruins of rock. Bowie’s vocals are both haunted and disaffected: the sound of a man demon-haunted for so long that terror has yielded to weariness. The massive ritardando capping each chorus has almost heart-freezing power, and the song ends with a crazy free-time jam from Gabrels and the Hunts. This time, it doesn’t sound comical or self-indulgent.

It wasn’t enough. Tin Machine II flopped, what little attention it got mostly revolving around the dicks on the cover. Bowie didn’t know it, but the 1991 was going to kill his band. Nirvana’s Nevermind (containing a more polished edition of Tin Machine’s noisy sound, and ironically, another cover with a dick) would come out in a few months, and instantly make Tin Machine seem tired and irrelevant. The grunge movement reshaped the musical landscape, burying artists like Tin Machine like fossils in the rock stratum of history. Faced with young and hungry bands from Seattle, there was nowhere for Bowie to go except the door.

Sometimes people survive trauma, only to die in their beds or in an ambulance. Tin Machine ambled on for a few more years, but the death blow happened in 1991. Tragically, that’s the year they made an album proving they deserved better.

Music / Reviews | Posted by Coagulopath
4 days, 13 hours, 17 minutes, 36 seconds ago

David Bowie’s career resembled a story, and in 1983 the story became an outright cliche: he hit triple cherries with Let’s Dance, his career ascended to never-before-seen heights, he flew too close to the sun, his albums became confused and over-calculated parodies of themselves, his old fans rejected him, his new ones moved on past him, everything was falling down around him, he starred in a big budget Fraggle Rock adaptation or something, etc, etc.

Tin Machine was supposed to fulfill the “triumphant comeback” part of the story. Back to the basics! No more synths, and no more selling out! Here comes Bowie, fronting a rock band! If that sounds wonderful, here comes the pain: Tin Machine’s 1989 debut is absolutely awful. It isn’t a reinvention, it isn’t a return to form, and compared to his derided mid 80s work, it’s actually worse in many respects.

The album is smug. This is hip, happening music for hip, happening people, and you can imagine it sneering at the records you’re shelving it with. Twenty years earlier, Bowie wrote “Join the Gang”, a song inspired (in part) by his exclusion from London’s counter-cultural artistic cliques. If they’d known he had this record in him, they’d have ushered him in through the VIP entrance. Tin Machine I is straight outta Gangland.

As mention, Tin Machine’s “hook” is that it’s a band. As with Eminem’s D12, you’re not supposed to notice that it contains one of the biggest stars in music (the cover underscores the point, with Bowie occupying the least amount of space out of the four). His bandmates are Tony and Hunt Sales (of Iggy Pop fame) on bass and drums, and Reeves Gabrels on guitar. Gabrels would eventually become the Ronson and Alomar of the 90s: Bowie’s trusty hired gun, and collaborator on many great songs. Here? SKREEK SKRAWK REE WEEDLE WEEDLE KERRRAAAANGG. There – you’ve heard his entire performance.

Hunt Sales is just irritating, pounding songs into the ground with flurries of 16th note snare fills. On some tracks (particularly the coda of the first one) his drumming approaches outright aural sabotage. TMI‘s music was written in a spontaneous, quasi-improvised fashion: for this to work, the four members need chemistry, and the low-grade telepathy of sidemen who have worked together for a long time. None of that intuition is on evidence here. It’s a three legged race, everyone tripping each other up.

The album’s problems become manifest as soon as “Heaven’s in Here” starts choogling away. Loud, noisy, and boring, it’s one of the worst songs on the record. “Tin Machine” sees Reeves yanking an interesting melodic idea from the upper frets, and Bowie follows it up with…nothing. “Take me anywhere!” How does the cut-out bin sound? “Prisoner of Love” is Dire Straits made dull and nondescript: it’s the musical version of a paving slab. “Crack City” is dumb (in an ironic nod-and-wink way), rocking out with a hard-edged riff and a pretty powerful chorus. Apparently the lyric is based off Nassau, where part of the album was recorded.

Health check: we are now nineteen minutes in, and have heard two good riffs and one good chorus. You call that a comeback? This is pathetic. Those junk Bowie bonds had a better rate of return. Scary Monsters gives you twice as many inspired ideas five minutes after you drop the needle, and at least Never Let Me Down offered up “Time Will Crawl” by now!

“I Can’t Read” is interesting, because it contains all the things that make Tin Machine insufferable (Reeves overplaying, Sales overdrumming, noise instead of coherency)…but it ends up being captivating. Bowie’s vocal is as raw and ugly as a half-bandaged wound as he ponders writer’s block (a topic addressed in “Sound and Vision”, although the two songs have no other similarities). At the end, he comes apart entirely. I don’t know how much of it as an act, but it’s a powerful moment.

The rest of the album blunders and crashes to its conclusion, offering up the occasionally highlight. “Bus Stop” is energetic and fun as hell – an uncharacteristic brush with hardcore punk. “Working Class Hero” can fuck right off. It joins the rare class of songs I literally cannot listen to because they make me angry (the class valedictorian is “Yassassin”, with “God Knows I’m Good” as salutorian and “The Buddha of Suburbia” third in class).

The reason I dislike alt-rock (a style that TMI is heavily inspired by), is that it holds the listener in contempt. You don’t play Nirvana’s In Utero, you’re condescended to by it. It’s smart, you’re dumb, now here’s ten more tracks of underproduced fuzz so you get the point. Bowie’s music was always clever, but it never tried to be better than the listener. “Sweet Thing” and “Warszawa” invited you to understand then. TMI is fifty-six minutes of Bowie and company gurning and giving you the finger.

All the excesses of the grunge era are here, several years too early. Bowie didn’t even fully succeed in escaping his pop persona, after EMI sulkingly released the album with stickers advising buyers that it was made by the guy who did Let’s Dance.

Music / Reviews | Posted by Coagulopath
1 week, 13 hours, 17 minutes, 36 seconds ago

David Bowie (it is known) often used characters, such as Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, and The Other One.

Here, in 1987, we see the debut of his shortest lived and most controversial character: Suck Man.

Suck Man’s origins are shrouded in mystery. He appeared once on this album, and then never again. David himself never spoke about him, and some Bowie historians claim he never existed at all. But by carefully listening to this album (from another room, wearing a HAZMAT suit) I can now reveal his full, tragic story.

Who is Suck Man? Essentially, he is the sad remains of a once successful rockstar, haunted by his glory days. He has no grasp at all on what his fans want or what might sell, so he’s trying to do everything at once. French horns? Here you go! Rapping? Yeah, he can do that too! Guitar solos? You bet! How about french horns, rapping, and guitar solos all at once, thrown together in a way that doesn’t make sense?! Imagine a whole album like that?! W…Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Suck Man is not a malicious figure. He’s sad, and pitiable. He clings to your ankles, begging for your acceptance. He’ll do anything. He just wants to be loved. If only he could be a hero again, if just for one day.

Never Let You Down is extremely bad, but at least it’s not bad in a boring way, like Tonight, or in an insufferable way, like Tin Machine I. It has entertainment value. There are songs I’ve listened to more than legit good Bowie tracks, and that’s saying something. The most obvious things wrong: the ridiculous production and arrangements. These aren’t songs, they’re crime scenes. The gated snare drum is obnoxiously loud. The backing singers are hideously overbearing. Bowie’s vocals vacillate between R&B and proto-Britpop. The album really does sound like 2 or 3 Michael Jackson tracks playing over the top of each other, all out of step.

It actually contains a little bit of good music – maybe more than Tonight did. “Time Will Crawl” has a cool, slinky saxophone line and a set of strong musical ideas. The Iggy Pop cover “Bang Bang” cooks nicely and ends the album well. Both these songs have twenty things shoved into them that don’t work and which I outright hate, but I see the skeletons of good music inside the layers of cancerous blubber.

Midway through the burnout of this musical Hindenburg, we get “Glass Spider”, which is not the worst song, but certainly the most embarrassing. Baby spiders have lost their mommy. Suck Man practically gift-wrapped this track for you. Not only is this track on the album, he actually titled the accompanying toured, and it was the second track. For God’s sake, at least Paul McCartney had the decency not to subject us to a “Wonderful Christmas Time” tour!

Suck Man also likes socially conscious lyrics. This was the era of Live Aid and Hear ‘n’ Aid, where every rockstar wanted to make a difference. Don’t ever play this to a former African child soldier. The gated snare will trigger PTSD flashbacks to AK-47s in the trenches of Sudan.

The rest of the album is ghastly. You listen in morbid fascination. Believe it or not, there’s an even worse track (“Too Dizzy”) that Bowie took off the record out of shame. Imagine being too bad for Never Let You Down – it’s like playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out and getting KO’d by Glass Joe.

“Transition…” – David Bowie, “TVC15”, Station to Station

He was right to muse on it, because transition is interesting. Not medical transition (though that must have intrigued him also), but philosophical transition. Ship of Theseus. Lumpers vs splitters. Much of philosophy is based around the question “when does a thing become something else?”

Is transition a continuum, like day becoming night? Or can it be quantified into discrete steps? Historians have spent countless hours wargaming World War II, trying to isolate the point where Hitler definitely lost. Was it 1940, when the Luftwaffe was crushed in the Battle of Britain? 1941, when the United States entered the war on the Allied side? 1942, when Stalingrad held? When was the final moment that Germany could have won World War II, and after which, they absolutely couldn’t? And how thinly can we slice the bratwurst? A month? A day? A single second?

Aladdin Sane is an exposition of transition. We see Bowie at a cracking point, where fame was becoming overwhelming, a burden. He invented a new character, a guy with worms filling his brain and white-ants eating his bones, but his confusion was no fiction. Over the next year his backing band would either leave or get fired, unable to handle his egomania and drug abuse. The paranoid Berlin years have their genesis here.

Musically, it’s fierce and punishing: along with The Man Who Sold the World, this is the heaviest thing Bowie ever recorded. But it has an experimental side that, again, seems like a preview trailer for Berlin. Transitions. Beginnings and ends.

We see both sides of the album, right out of the gate. “Watch That Man” is a loud party song – Bowie (perhaps in character, probably not) is at a party, noticing scenes of glitz and glamour and pronouncing them merely “so-so”. Maybe it’s not even that. Maybe it’s about to become a nightmare.

“Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)” is the end stage of that party. The song is dominated by a 45-bar avant-garde jazz solo by pianist Mike Garson. Surely Bowie’s brilliance was becoming impossible to deny by now. Damned well nobody else was doing stuff like this in 1973. What’s the meaning of the dates in the titles? 1913 was the year before World War I. 1938 was the year before World War II. Does this mean that Bowie thought that the third World War would happen in the 70s? And did it?

“Cracked Actor”, “Jean Genie,” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” are homages to or parodies of the Rolling Stones. The guitars crush and maul, and his vocals sound both inspired and exhausted. “Time” sees a new influence popping up: Jacques Brel, who he discovered via Scott Walker. “The Prettiest Star” is a lovely song: it was originally his failed second single, here remade with Ronson’s guitars and some added backup vocals.

The album overflows with great music, but two songs overshadow the others.

The first is “Panic in Detroit”, anarchic and violent, a track which burns with the guttering energy of a trash fire. The female backing vocals pull its genre way from rock, making it sound as indeterminate as any riot. The second is “Lady Grinning Soul”, a delusive opium dream made music. I like it every bit as much as “The Bewlay Brothers”, which means Bowie scarcely ever wrote a better song.

Aladdin Sane is far tighter (and a good bit better) than Ziggy Stardust. The Mick Jagger meets Jiminy Cricket character of Ziggy Stardust evolved into Aladdin Sane, a manic guy caught between two transition points and being torn apart by fame. The trip is finishing, and the come-down has begun. This is 3am insomnia, the album: paranoid, anxious, and still unable to sleep.

Music / Reviews | Posted by Coagulopath
1 week, 13 hours, 17 minutes, 36 seconds ago

David had a remarkable talent for throwing fragments down at random and having them form a complete picture. Diamond Dogs is a fractured album with mismatching halves (the first a concept about a post-apocalyptic gang that rides around on rollerskates, the second an abortive attempt at a stage musical version of Orwell’s 1984) but it ends up being one of his most complete-sounding records.

The halves feed each other, and bleed onto each other. The post-apocalyptic tracks form an optimistic beachhead, which the 1984 side effectively quashes. First the fire, then the flood. I’m reminded of Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog: gaudy adventures in the wreck of the Earth, with a grim final page.

The title track is probably the worst song: it sets the tone, but doesn’t get out of the way when it should. Why is it six minutes long? It’s the most blatant homage to the Rolling Stones Bowie ever wrote, and one of the last. Sometimes I skip it.

“Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing Reprise” is a genius-touched epic, farmed from William S Burrough’s technique of cutting up lines and reassembling them (again with the happy accidents). Bowie’s singing is wonderful, and the mood established by the scrambled lyrics are delirious scissored photographs of urban decay. The three tracks are curiously interchangeable, they all seem to work fine on their own, or in any order. Maybe their positioning is itself a cut-up.

Then “Rebel Rebel” opens with its scorching signature guitar riff, played by Bowie himself. This was his first studio release without Mick Ronson, and he seemed eager to upstage his former axeman. There’s interesting production elements going on in “Rebel Rebel”. Rock guitarists typically lay down two guitar tracks side by side (one panned left, the other right.) Bowie, it appears, only recorded one, panned dead center. This gives his tone a sharper, more brittle sound (compare “Rebel Rebel” with “Watch that Man” or “Hang Onto Yourself”), it cuts rather than bludgeons. It’s a great riff, however it was recorded. There’s a legendary story about how tennis legend John McEnroe (fresh off of Wimbledon), attempted to play it in his hotel suite, and botched it so badly that Bowie himself overheard from the room below, and banged on the door to correct him.

As with “Diamond Dogs”, “Rebel Rebel” feels gaseous. There’s a perfect ending point at 3:30 that Bowie blows right past, continuing for another minute. Rock DJs soon got into the habit of dropping the axe at three and a half minutes, and soon Bowie was doing the same (as you can hear yourself from the version on Reality, for example). Some of David’s songs (eg “Breaking Glass”) grew longer with time: this one grew shorter.

Then the 1984 half of the album begins, which is the stronger side. The songs work marvelously, whether alone or together, and there’s no pacing issues evident.

“Rock ‘n Roll With Me” is the last dance before the war begins. “We are the Dead” is a descending vamp through parlous gray madness, with none of “Rebel Rebel’s” optimism. The tinkling organ sounds aggressively and effectively fake – the sort of musical instrument they’d have in Oceania.

“1984” is a fascinating funk rock experiment, quite similar to the music on Young Americans. Then the album’s greatest track arrives, the astonishing “Big Brother”. “Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family” ends the album in primitive violence. The sudden, jarring end (in the middle of “Brother”) is particularly effective.

There’s still another story to Diamond Dogs which has nothing to do with apocalypses or Orwell: David succesfully staying in the game as an artist. At the time, the glam genre he’d hung his hat on was falling to pieces. For the first time, T-Rex’s new album was not a top 10 hit, and they never had another one. Mott the Hoople had failed to follow up “All the Young Dudes”. Was Bowie next? Would he join the rest of the glam rockers in obscurity, paved over by uncaring history?

Happily, Diamond Dogs was the album that achieved escape velocity, breaking free from Planet Glam. He left his old style behind, revealing that it had needed him more than he neededit. This is more than an album. It’s the sound of David fighting for his life and winning.

Music / Reviews | Posted by Coagulopath
1 week, 2 days, 13 hours, 17 minutes, 36 seconds ago

“Great” is a landmine in the English lexicon. It means “eminent or important”, but has picked up a secondary meaning of “qualitatively favorable”. Hitler was a great man, and Hitler wasn’t a great man. Both of these statements are true; sometimes important things are not good and vice versa.

Let’s Dance is great. The album broke Bowie in the United States, and it’s clearly one of the most important things he ever did. Soon Bowie would be on the run from its shadow, trying to recreate it and failing (Tonight), then unsuccessfully circling back to what he had before (Tin Machine). But time has diminished Let’s Dance, and made its weaknesses more apparent. You might say it’s dancing on feet of clay.

The songwriting is very smart (absolutely to a fault). The title track opens with harmonised vocals stepping upwards in thirds, a postmodern reference to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout”. “China Girl” contains a pentatonic major melody that suggests the famous Oriental Riff. Everything’s allusions and callbacks, Bowie trying to fill dance-floors while remaining palatable to theater types.

The production glitters like diamonds. Cubic zirconium, maybe, but for a few minutes you’re having too much fun to notice. Nile Rodgers’ mix is all edge and cut, meant to decapitate dancers through a club PA. A careful listen reveals that the mid-range frequencies are scooped away, turning the album into a flashy but hollow facade. It’s all highs and lows, and lacks substance. There’s little guitar (why pay Stevie Ray Vaughan for his time and then not use him?), and when it appears it sounds thin and weak.

Side A contains all the hits, plus the forgettable “Without You”. Side B is the more uncertain and interesting one. “Richochet” puts its snare on the 1 and 3, giving it a staggered rhythm that sounds “off” even though it’s perfectly on. The lyrics are portentous enough for the drums to sound like bomb blasts, with Bowie’s vocals a robotic call to take shelter. Not a great track, but you finally see some struggle from Bowie, which is a relief on an album as mercilessly polished as an Apple tech demo.

“Cat People” is a remake, “Criminal World” a cover, but both come off fairly well in Nile Rodgers’ hands (although “Cat People” loses its mystery and rushes to the climax too early). “Shake It” is a disposable dance song that pads out the minutes, and then the album’s over. It’s shocking how fast the Let’s Dance ends, and how little music you’ve heard.

There was nowhere to go after Let’s Dance. It annexes itself with sheer power, the way nuclear warfare ends the need to its existence. Let’s Dance is exterior and nothing else: an amazing exterior, nothing really has depth or stays with you. Low grows stronger every time I listen to it, and Let’s Dance grows weaker.

The album is like its production job – a big but empty musical souffle. It was a monster that Bowie never needed to fear: he was better than it, always. Let’s Dance is great album, but I cannot say that it’s a good one.

Music / Reviews | Posted by Coagulopath
1 week, 2 days, 13 hours, 17 minutes, 36 seconds ago

Oscar Wilde espoused an idea called kaloprosopia, creating oneself as a beautiful character. “Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.”

Discussions of who you really were irrelevant to Wilde (and still are, I guess, as he’s dead). People misunderstand everything anyway, so why not be misunderstood as something interesting? Turn yourself into the Taj Mahal, which has so much paint and white marble that nobody can believe there’s plain sandstone underneath.

I don’t know to what extent Bowie liked Wilde. All I know is that he appears on this album’s cover in a dress, and in two more years he’d declare himself gay in the pages of Melody Maker, and twenty years after that he’d declare in Rolling Stone that he was never gay and it was all a publicity stunt, and thirty years after that his former wife Angie would allege to a biographer that she’d caught him in bed with Mick Jagger. Reality? Truth? What’s that?

By 1970, Bowie’s career hadn’t amounted to much. A minor hit with “Space Oddity”, and a follow-up called “The Prettiest Star” which sold 800 copies. Commercial rejection caused him to throw caution to the wind and write some of his most bold and startling material. The Man Who Sold the World is a heavy metal album, recorded several months before Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, an album it nearly matches in riffs and intensity.

Unlike Space Oddity, he had a tight band around him now (an early version of the Spiders, lacking only Trevor Bolder on bass): particularly Mick Ronson, who nearly dominates the album with his guitar work. Tony Visconti was learning a trade at a rapid pace, and his production work almost becomes another instrument.

“Running Gun Blues” was a track Bowie never seemed to keen on performing live after he got famous, for whatever reason (“I’ll slash them cold, I’ll kill them dead! I’ll break them gooks, I’ll crack their heads!”) but it rocks hard and has some strong vocal work. Terrible lyrics aside, it’s a notably early entry in the “crazy Vietnam vet” genre; the album was recorded only a few months after word of the Mai Lai massacre arrived in the United States.

The album doesn’t have one closing song, it somehow has two. “The Man Who Sold the World” is the record’s catchiest cut. “The Supermen” is apocalyptic and Wagnerian, with Bowie shrilling out his lines like an Etonian robot Hitler. Either song would work as an album closer, and it seems only a trick of fate put “The Supermen” last.

But the tracks are like planets orbiting the sun that is “Width of a Circle”, an eight minute epic that predates Ronson’s entrance to the band, although I cannot imagine anyone else playing it. The song is driven by massive riffs, and lead breaks that burn like excoriating fire. Apparently, this became Bowie’s “costume change” song in the Ziggy Stardust era. He’d leave the stage entirely, allowing Ronson to solo over “Width of a Circle” for up to ten minutes!

The lyrics are pretty interesting, fusing the Rolling Stones’ sales pitch for Satanism with homosexual innuendo. I don’t know if the “circle” in the title is a reference to Dante or a something even more nefandous, and that way it will stay. As usual Bowie’s a little cleverer than the Spinal Tappery would suggest: “prayers were small and yellow”…why “yellow”? Cowardice? Or a reference to the yellow book that corrupts Dorian Gray (another Oscar Wilde connection)?

The Man Who Sold the World is full of amazing moments, and it’s a worthy start to a legendary run of albums. Ironically, Bowie himself wasn’t totally on board for it. He’d just gotten married (so the story goes), and beyond a few songs that predated the marriage, his partners in glam had some trouble getting him to write and record. The marriage ended in 1980, but The Man Who Sold the World has lasted and lasted. It’s an enduring classic, and still only his beginning.

Music / Reviews | Posted by Coagulopath
2 weeks, 13 hours, 17 minutes, 36 seconds ago

My least favorite of the classic DB albums. I don’t like soul music much, and the songs tend to rely upon “call and response” vocal patterns more than actual melodies, which is a shame.

But it’s still special, and contains two of his finest songs. Bowie (at least at this stage of his career) didn’t compromise much: once he picked a style to explore, he carried it through to its conclusion (although whether said conclusion was “The Laughing Gnome” or “Station to Station” depends much on the year and the drugs he was taking). Young Americans represents a total break from the past. It would have bee easy to throw in some riff-driven rockers so the Ziggy Stardust fans have a lifeline, but Bowie rejected any last vestiges of the glam rock that made him famous.

Anyway, amazing song number uno: “Win”. The tone is tender and comforting, propelled by an exposed but deeply affecting vocal performance. I like “Golden Years” a little more, but between the two you have the best work he ever did in this style.

The Beatles cover “Across the Universe” misfires, though considering it also misfired in the Beatles hands, this is probably due to it being a bad song. The “nothing’s gonna change my world…” part remains bewildering: it always makes me think that the singer forgot the vocal melody in front of the microphone and is clumsily ad-libbing a new one.

The song existed as bait to attract John Lennon to the studio, and this gave us the second of Young Americans’ great moments (and a rare #1 hit): “Fame”. The song opens with brass playing a pair of 3/4 bars. The melodies seem to bloom in the air like flowers: their promise false.

The rest of the song is jittery and claustrophobic, consisting of yelped vocals over a sparse rhythm section. Carlos Alomar’s guitar riff is fascinating, jabbing you so quickly and sharply that it seems to penetrate vital organs. If “Fame” was a painting, it would be pointillism. Lennon’s guest contribution is to double the vocals – hitting you with David’s lyrics in stereo.

The rest of the album does the job to varying degrees. The title track (as with the album before it) ends up being kind of a non-event. It sets the tone, but doesn’t really. I quite enjoy “Fascination”, although I miss the heavy riffs and melodic singing.

One dud. Two amazing songs. Bowie would find that America aged him pretty fast, at this stage of his career he produced exceptional work wherever he lived and worked. A pretty amazing accomplishment: we’re watching Bowie jump into empty space…and land on his feet.

Music / Reviews | Posted by Coagulopath
2 weeks, 3 days, 13 hours, 17 minutes, 36 seconds ago

The events of the future are unknown, but The Future is an old friend: we’ve seen it come and go before.

First, new horizons appear. The lookout in the ship’s crow’s nest sights a new continent. Astronauts witness the dark side of the moon. But then the horizons blacken. The new continent is despoiled and pillaged. The moon asks the astronauts “you’re here. Now what?” The unknown turns ugly very quickly, as a piece of paper burns from the edges in.

A theme in science fiction (emphasized in the New Wave of the 1970s) is that we might not know what to do with the discoveries of the future: that our wings will burn away, and then we’ll fall. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey took a less (or perhaps more) pessimistic approach, the future will change us so that we cannot fall. Evolution will alchemize us: the primitive shaggy apes are doomed, and though their descendants will succeed in the new world, they are not their descendants. Will we live or die in the future? Maybe it’s not simple. Maybe we’ll be different.

David Bowie saw the film while stoned, and it excited him terribly (interesting coincidence: the astronaut in the film is called “Dave Bowman”). His career was bouncing along like a dead cat at the time – failed bands, a dead-on-arrival album in 1967, and no real musical identity. His manager Ken Pitt was wearily cobbling together a promotional film (the unreleased Love You Till Tuesday), and he needed a filler track. Bowie wrote “Space Oddity”.

Forty four years later, it is Bowie’s signature song. It was performed in space by Chris Hadfield, four hundred kilometers above the earth’s surface. Unlike the apes, the humans, and Bowie himself, “Space Oddity” might never die. It has been selected for quasi-immortality. Nothing about the song makes sense. It’s a filler that will live forever; a tonally complex piece (with fifteen different chords) that can be strummed in basic outline by any starting guitarist; a musically indecisive song (neither sounding like folk or rock) that captures an era and a career. I’m still not sure what to make of it, but clearly we have to make something. It will outlive us, too.

The song’s minor success upon release (it was used by the BBC to score footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing – nobody seems to have realised that the song ends with the astronaut stranded in space!) led to a rushed album, initially self-titled, then rebranded as Space Oddity.

It’s not an unreserved classic. It’s confused at times, as if part of it still exists in imagination, and was imperfectly drawn into reality. The songs are mostly longwinded and complex, and the band doesn’t sound as tight as it needs to be. Tony Visconti’s solution was to slather everything in reverb and room noise, leaving Bowie’s vocal track to hold things together.

Although there’s only one outright bad song – the hideous “God Knows I’m Good” – it’s a frustrating listen at times, sometimes underdeveloped, and sometimes over-egged. Tracks like “Letter to Hermione” are so thin they can hardly stand upright, while “Unwashed and Somewhat Dazed” and “Cygnet Committee” struggle not to collapse under their weight. I want to run a butter knife over it, and smooth all the clumpy parts.

But Space Oddity is obviously a start for him. You can see where “Cygnet Committee” ends and “Savior Machine” begins, for example. There’s moments of real artistry: “Memory of a Free Festival” begins as a pile of indistinct musical fog, and just when you’re good and lost, a ship’s prow pierces the mist. You can hear the song make sense of its own confusion, and it’s one of the finer moments of the album. The album’s lyrics are mostly confessional in nature, which isn’t something we saw a lot of before or after. A lot of it’s about disillusionment. “Letter to Hermione,” “Cygnet Committee”, and “Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud” are kiss-offs to various relationships and social cliques Bowie was a part of.

Although it lives in the shadow of its very famous track, there’s much of interest here. I would not recommend this as a first Bowie album for anyone, and it might be best as their last: when one’s deep enough in the game to wonder where he came from and how he got to the present. If you want evolutionary steps, this is where we see vestigial legs appearing on Bowie. It’s very spacey, very odd, and very worthwhile.

Music / Reviews | Posted by Coagulopath
2 weeks, 6 days, 13 hours, 17 minutes, 36 seconds ago

(Note from management: review is terrible. We estimate that it will be demolished and a better one built by no later than 2039, allowing for cost overruns.)

Here’s where Bowie really gets his shit together. “He already had his shit together on TMWSTW!” Yes, but here he gets his shit even more together. Imagine a 10,000-psi hydraulic shit-compactor that compresses the entire contents of David Bowie’s lower bowel into a one-inch cube. That’s how together his shit is on this album.

Hunky Dory is a lovely collection of music, a classic among classics. Pick a Bowie fan, and ask for their ten favorite songs. I guarantee that at least two and probably three songs mentioned will be from Hunky Dory. (For the sake of sample purity, ignore any female whose answers contains “Magic Dance”.) “Changes”, “Oh! You Pretty Things”, “Life on Mars?”…they just keep on coming, to the point of embarrassment. Damn it, David, you’re supposed give the rubes one good song, and then unload the filler. You’re not supposed to pile up like, four or five classics on each side!

Books could and have been written about why these songs remain listenable and timeless in the face of (ch-ch-)change, bur some of Hunky Dory’s finest moments occur in the the deep cuts. “Andy Warhol” is a song nobody talks about much, and it didn’t place at all in Chris O’Leary’s 2015 Bowie song poll. Yet it contains Mick Ronson’s greatest riff, a jagging, colorful flamenco line that was later borrowed by Metallica for the bridge to “Master of Puppets”. Bowie performed the song personally to Warhol at the Factory in September 1971 – apparently, Warhol completely ignored the song he’d just heard, and commented on Bowie’s shoes!

“Queen Bitch” rips off Velvet Underground and takes them to a new level of violence, pounding the listener into a bloody pulp. But the greatest moment arrives at the very end of the album, with “The Bewlay Brothers”. The song is part acoustic folk, part studio experiment, with a mysterious set of lyrics that fans have spent five decades trying to tease apart.

Bowie would trash the song as portentous nonsense in interviews. But there’s something obviously personal about “Bewlay Brothers”, as if there’s real feelings underneath the fanciful patina of dwarves and rituals. For example, “My brother lays upon the rocks/he could be dead, he could be not” could only refer to Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother Terry Burns, whose seizures would cause him to collapse in public. Bowie’s disavowals seem like an attempt to cordon off the song, and stop people from looking at it. As a man who traded in identities as much as any spy, did he slip up on this one, and reveal the truth?

Hunky Dory‘s weakness might be the production and presentation. Tony’s Visconti’s absence behind the mixing desk is a pretty big deficit: the instrumentation sounds thin. And although the pacing plays some fun tricks (the unresolved tension at the end of “Oh! You Pretty Things” gets cleared up straight away by the F in “Eight Line Poem”) overall the album seems misweighted, with a foppish, baroque first half and a hard rocking second half.

Although it’s only my fourth favorite Bowie album (behind Low, Station to Station, and Aladdin Sane…or damn it, maybe Diamond Dogs?), it’s the one with the catchiest songs. Bowie ruled the 70s like the Beatles ruled the 60s, but if you were to shave his career to the very finest point, it would start with “I still don’t know what I was waiting for” and end with “…malio”.