Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Jamming Good

A few random Bowie thoughts after a week-and-change of binging on his catalog:

1. VOICE: I read and heard very little last week about the extreme oddity of his vocal range and stylings, which he used to full effect from "Life on Mars" (try singing that whole thing through without resorting to falsetto) right up to his last record. Really, it was an extraordinary instrument, and I think it's safe to call it unique in rock. (I remember thinking how perverse it was for him to cover the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" in a bass croak; I'm sure he was having a laugh on us with that one.)

2. ACCENT: Unlike his countrymen in the Beatles or the Stones or the Who, even Elvis Costello, who mostly ape American diction, Bowie's crisp London accent was always front and center (with a few arguable exceptions when he was singing full-on blues rock very early in his career, and at his glam-rock height). I wonder if it had something to do with Anthony Newley's influence--one might question a lot about Newley's work (and taste), but never where he was from. (Strangely enough, it's that accent that may be what most moves me about Bowie's amazing cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "America," from a concert after 9/11.) 3. SONGCRAFT: I'd never really taken stock till last week of what an astonishing tunesmith Bowie was. I had registered the hugely varying sounds of his records and clocked some of his obvious templates (blues rock, Philly soul, Kraut rock, folk), and I'd certainly noticed the times he grooved on simple progressions ("Golden Years," "Five Years," "Fashion," "Sound and Vision," etc.) vs. the times he was making what sounded like more ambitious/odd pieces, structurally or harmonically ("Station to Station," "Ashes to Ashes," "Width of a Circle," "Life on Mars," side two of Low). But taking apart some of his tunes in the past week, I'm more in awe than ever. Case in point: "Queen Bitch" has always been a favorite song of mine, and that simple, Lou Reedy I-V-IV progression on side-by-side acoustic and electric guitars is reason enough to love it at first hook. And the chorus always sounded to me like it's got some sort of harmonic lift out of the verse, then a sidelong turn back into it. I checked it out and that's all true, but a little weirder than that: The verse is in C, and the chorus alternates between B and D (getting there with help from E and A), then pivots back out from B to a C  ("Oh God I could do better than that"). That sneaky chromaticism is not something I expected in a blues-rock jam. Now that I can hear it, I love it all the more. This is happening all over the place with his songs now that I'm freshly attuned to it.
4. PRODUCTION: I've read and heard a lot about how he worshipped spontaneity and serendipity in the studio, hated to do multiple takes, etc. That doesn't seem to square with the rich, polished, questing, deeply intentional sounds I've been hearing in my earbuds for the past week; apart from the weirdly under-recorded vocals of "Watch That Man" (anyone know what was up with that?), there isn't really a sloppy or half-baked moment on his records. There are some perfunctory performances and the occasional lapse into slickness, and some very clear stylistic dead ends (Young Americans, I'm looking at you). But nothing that sounds dashed off.

5. LYRICS: Finally, as many of the more astute commenters recently pointed out, the whole Bowie-as-character-chameleon thing is way overblown. In fact, after 1976 he stopped creating characters altogether (slightly changing your look and sound, as he did thereafter, is standard pop-star procedure). While it's true that the stark change-ups of the early '70s, and the fact that he'd gone through what seemed like so many, were what first clued me in that he was essentially a theatre artist in rock and pop form, I could have JUST LISTENED TO THE LYRICS. Duh! His first hit "Space Oddity" didn't just set up the Bowie-as-alien trope that he riffed on throughout his whole career--it has multiple voices in conversation, and tells a story. In other words: a little one-act play. So is the meta-narrative "Life on Mars," and of course the concept albums Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs...and so on. One smart pushback I heard against interpreting his last record Blackstar, and the stage show Lazarus, as autobiographical is that's exactly the kind of thing Bowie pointedly NEVER did. Like David Byrne or Randy Newman, Bowie didn't need to put on a character; his songs were already doing the job.

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