Before we get into it, I have a confession to make.
I wanted to make this two albums a month for one year. Fifty-two weeks in a year, twenty-six albums, one album every two weeks. It would’ve been so tidy. All the albums in a single year, just like that, so perfect, with a neat little bow on top.
Then I sat down and started planning out the posts, and I realized that my most intimate knowledge of Bowie’s oeuvre only goes as far as album #13 (Scary Monsters). I’m familiar with albums #14 – #24, and of course The Next Day and ★ are close to my heart, having been released after I “saw the light”. But I realized that undertaking to review all of the albums in one year would be premature. I have lots to say about #1 – #13 as I’ve taken plenty of time to really listen to and digest them over the course of weeks, months, and years. As I spend time with each album, it comes into focus as part of the larger picture of his whole body of work, and listening to them in roughly chronological order has given me a deep appreciation for the music’s evolutionary process. Diamond Dogs weird, exuberant glam-rock dystopian narrative makes a leap to the smooth, sweet, expertly-crafted “blue-eyed soul” songs about love and social commentary of Young Americans, which is no less than quantum. It was a jump that I had trouble understanding back in the days when I was still stuck on Man Who Sold the World.
I find that as I grow and mature, so does my appreciation of Bowie’s work, and my twenty-one-year-old self would not have been able to appreciate, for example, the epic brilliance of Look Back in Anger. I don’t know if that makes much sense, but I do know that I feel very strongly about doing the same for #14 – #26, and the only way, I think, is to just take my time with this project. I don’t want to rush it. There’s no reason for it. I’m also a firm believer in coincidence, and I feel that the project will begin and end exactly as it’s supposed to. I mean, I have Bowie on my side, so how can I go wrong?
When I listen to Bowie’s eponymous first studio album, all I can think of is “hessian and lace,” of the genesis of his artistry in the airy-fairy late sixties folk and theater scene. He studied mime and would later perform classic mime routines on stage during Ziggy Stardust concerts, which, to me, is so emblematic of Bowie the artist. Here is a person who basically pioneered an entire genre and spawned countless other genres and inspired millions of other artists, whose name became synonymous with rock and roll. Yet when you think rock and roll, you sure as shit don’t think “mime.”
But Bowie did. I think of that scene from the Ziggy Stardust film where Bowie’s doing mime. It was so beautiful and well-done, but as a person who grew up with the modern rock scene it felt so incongruous. I think of miming as being somewhat very high-brow and esoteric and campy (if a thing can be esoteric and campy at the same time), while rock and roll is visceral and loud and — let’s be real — not usually all that cerebral. Only Bowie could whip out a gorgeous mime routine in the middle of a hard rock concert, and so seamlessly blend the two.
Except, for me, there’s a moment that’s not so seamless. It was a bit jarring to see him suddenly start miming amidst the wailing and gyrating and simulated fellatio. It was a moment of vulnerability, of artistic risk, that I’m sure went unappreciated by many, if only because Bowie made it look so natural. This moment proves, to me, that although the music pretty much departed from the folksy cabaret-ish sound of the first album, I think part of his heart always stayed there in that spiritual place where David Bowie was written and recorded. I think part of him always wanted to be a mime, but maybe, being a mime wasn’t “cool enough”— or something. Maybe not. But there’s something about him, about the way he moves and dances in later years when he is a Very Serious Musician (if, in fact, he was— I don’t know, I never knew the man, this is just how I think of it all in my own weird little perception of Bowie and the world at large), the way he performs— it always has a bit of a campy flair to it that makes me think that maybe the guy just wanted to be a fucking mime but the world needed him to be a rockstar instead.
So he did.
I’ve noticed that some of Bowie’s albums tell a story, and others are more just collections of songs. David Bowie is the latter, I think. The album itself doesn’t feel like it has a coherent narrative, the way other albums like Man Who Sold the World and Blackstar did, but it’s a solid collection of songs that each tell their own story.
“Uncle Arthur” is a song that has stuck with me. Uncle Arthur is someone we mock, but we also pity because he’s so clueless. The song mocks Uncle Arthur and sounds, at times, like a schoolyard taunt with the sing-song chorus. It makes no explicit value judgment about reading comics or following Batman, but it’s clear that we look upon Uncle Arthur with derision for all the things he does in the song. It’s interesting to me because, whether consciously or not, I think Uncle Arthur represents a kind of psychological boogeyman. He’s so hapless and un-self-aware that the specter of Uncle Arthur hangs over all our shoulders and we have to wonder if they’re laughing at us, too, and we’re just too oblivious to know it. I mean, I know I’m running from the specter of Uncle Arthur, so I wouldn’t blame him if Bowie were, too. The grappling that I imagine between folk and rock and mime and fucking feels to me a little bit like David Bowie grappling with Uncle Arthur.
“Uncle Arthur” typifies a sense of playful, poetical cynicism that colors the whole album.”Love You Till Tuesday” is another track that is musically kind of goofy, yet the lyrics are absolutely cutting in their cynicism. The speaker tells a girl he met on Sunday that he’ll love her with all his heart… until Tuesday, but maybe he’ll stretch it till Wednesday. I feel bad for the girl. The narrator in this song seems to know how much the girl cares for him, and he’s having a hell of a time toying with her emotions. This dynamic is turned on its head, however, with “Sell Me a Coat,” which again is musically boring but poetically stellar. In “Sell Me A Coat,” Bowie is the jilted lover, singing about how the object of his affection is so cold to him. (See the performance of this song in the Love You Till Tuesday film, where Bowie is gazing at Hermione while he sings.) I like this thematic repartee between relationship dynamics. It tells us that, whatever Bowie says, he’s still a human being (not a prophet or a stone-age man), who both hurts other people and gets hurt. It’s the glibness and frankness with which these hurts are portrayed that makes them so powerful. The playfulness of the music and some of the images in the songs (“Jack Frost ain’t so cool”; “Who’s that hiding in the apple tree?”) soften the blows.
Another song which struck me was “Please Mr. Gravedigger.” This one was playful in its musical style and tone, talking to the gravedigger amid the sound of heavy rain. It’s campy, but the campiness makes it creepy. The song is ultimately about alienation, a theme which will ebb and flow but never disappear from Bowie’s work. The playful elements of this song do little to soften the emotional blow of the curmudgeonly old gravedigger dying alone, and being buried alive by the anonymous narrator. It’s a depressing dirge of an ending to an album which sounds upbeat otherwise, but at its heart, is definitely not. One could even argue that “Please Mr. Gravedigger” is the least cynical and least depressing song on the album. We all know that death is inevitable, while the other songs shatter our illusions about the things that make life worth living, like friendship and romantic love.
The album overall is great. In my opinion, everything Bowie ever touched was great, I think the man just couldn’t help it, he oozed genius and brilliance and that’s just how it was. But that’s just me. This album is not my favorite. I don’t mean that euphemistically to say that it’s not good, I mean subjectively speaking this is not one of the albums that I play over and over and over in the car. Although it may one day be. My relationship with Bowie’s work shifts constantly over time, I go through phases, I love to “discover” his music and really delve into it. I’m not sure why I haven’t “delved” as much into David Bowie. Maybe I just don’t care for this kind of music the way I do his other material. This was just one of Bowie’s many, many musical experiments. In my opinion, this album is lyrically and thematically fascinating, but musically a bit… I don’t want to say “uninspired,” but it has kind of a sleepy feel to it that’s gone completely by Man Who Sold the World. In order to fully appreciate the brilliance of David Bowie, I had to sit down and write an essay about it, because the way it sounds makes me want to dismiss it as fluff when it clearly is not. But by Space Oddity, Bowie’s sound is beginning to catch up to his poetry, and by Man Who Sold The World, the two are in harmonious, divine sync.
I’m tempted to also throw in something here about Love You Till Tuesday, the fascinating and weird promotional film released in 1969. I’d like to devote a whole post to it some other time. Personally, the absolute best bit was something I’d never seen before— that strange, beautiful mime piece about the mask. It was eerily prescient. The mask represents his pre-Berlin musical personae which very nearly “strangled him on stage”. He would say later in interviews that Ziggy was a “monster”. Although Ziggy got put to bed in 1973, I don’t think the mask came off. I think retiring the Ziggy character was Bowie’s attempt to remove the mask, and his subsequent struggles with substance abuse and other personal issues nearly “strangled him on stage,” that is, “the mask” nearly killed him (only for him to rise from the ashes-to-ashes in Berlin and beyond).
I’ve enjoyed digging deeper into this album than I ever have before. It’s still not my favorite, musically, but in my personal study of Bowie, it’s been enlightening as to his evolution as an artist. Here we see he started out quite faithful to his influences, and perhaps tried to wedge into the mainstream. Interestingly, it was only upon his most confident rejection of the mainstream with Ziggy Stardust that people really started to pay attention.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts about the album David Bowie, the film Love You Till Tuesday, and whatever else is on your mind, in the comments!