This review has been exactly as troublesome as I thought it would be.
This album marks the huge landslide transition from “Bowie albums where I might already know one or two of the songs” to “Bowie albums that I know like the back of my hand”. And yes, I know that it’s fairly late in the discography, but I’m not going to make any excuses for that.
The reason why I knew that this would be troublesome is that I’ve already listened to this album a few dozen times through, under far less pressured circumstances, and I know that I like it. I like it a lot more than Hours…. Which raises the sticky question – was there a sudden quality shift in Bowie’s songwriting between 1999 and 2002, or have I been judging his previous albums unfairly harshly because of the manner in which I’m hearing them for the first time.
Damnit, it’s thorny stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. Well, let’s get into it.
The album-opener is entitled Sunday and it’s one of those crafty songs that starts from nearly-nothing, airy wind sounds and twiddling and chirruping, percussion coming in element by element, then a droning backing vocal, gradually developing texture and depth with impressive restraint, before exploding into life about a minute from the end. Once it’s got going, you’re expecting more, but it just maintains the same level for 30 seconds and then fades out. Very puzzling, and somewhat frustrating.
Next up is Cactus, which reminds me of the song that I wrote with my sister back when I was younger. Probably one of the first songs I ever wrote. It wasn’t very good. Whereas this song, originally by the Pixies, is excellent – it’s loud and brash and dirty. A superb cover of it as well, it takes a fairly dull and repetitive song and gives it a whole heap of texture and interest.
Slip Away is quite a beautiful song, lots of fantastically mwahful fretless bass accompanying a distant-sounding piano and a lush orchestral-sounding arrangement in the chorus. This song was originally recorded for Bowie’s Toy album, which never ended up being released. I had no idea what this song was about until I did a bit of research and discovered that it references an endearingly low-budget kids TV show called The Uncle Floyd Show. There don’t seem to be any episodes online, so I guess I’ll never get to experience it first-hand. Anyway, I seem to have slipped off on a tangent, I should get back onto the subject of the song. Stylophone! Lots of stylophone in it! Yes, I don’t lie.
One of my favourites next, Slow Burn, I love that pounding bassline in the verse, though I’ve never been able to decipher the lyrics. Every time I think I’ve figured it out, I realise “hang on, that makes no sense.” I could look them up, but that seems to be missing the point. When you reach the end of the chorus, and the bassline starts pounding again, and Bowie sings “Slow burrrrrrrnnnnn” and holds that note, it feels like the ground has dropped away beneath you.
I’m a bit more ambivalent about Afraid, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but nor is there anything that really stands out as noteworthy. String quartet in the chorus is fairly clever though, it’s not the sort of song that you’d normally expect to find strings on.
Next track is a cover of Neil Young’s I’ve Been Waiting For You. Again, if you listen to it side by side with the original, it feels like he’s done a masterful job of taking a song with lots of potential and thickening it up beautifully, adding more energy in the choruses and more dynamics throughout. And I also didn’t realise until recently that the guest guitarist on this track is none other than Dave Grohl!
I Would Be Your Slave sees the return of the string quartet, but this time in a far more elegant setting, with a shuffling drum rhythm that sounds like the chattering of train wheels on rails, and a bassline that ascends and descends to the very limits of the instrument’s range. I’m really very fond of this song, it’s beautiful and endearing.
It’s not very often that Bowie takes a song and changes it drastically when doing a cover version. He often just does a near-facsimile, and sometimes improves it vastly. Very occasionally he wrecks it. But in the case of I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship he takes something that is barely even recognisable as music, and pretty much writes the entire song from scratch. Compare and contrast the original, by Norman Carl Odam, with Bowie’s version. The original is not without its appeal, for those who are into such sorts of lo-fi Beefheartery, but the cover is an energetic masterpiece.
5:15 The Angels Have Come is another of my favourites (I seem to have a lot of them on this album) for its ghostly verses and rich soaring chorus, a formula that Bowie rarely fails to excel at. Very unusual for Bowie, this song fades out on a drum solo, that then transitions into…
…Everyone Says Hi. I find the presentation of this song to be a bit irritatingly twee, I find it hard to believe that this was intended to be entirely tongue-not-in-cheek. That said, I’ve always found the lyrics to be moving. There are particular lines that have a certain poignancy for me at the moment, and I’m finding this song quite hard to listen to for that reason.
Album ends on A Better Future which I’ve never found particularly inspiring from a musical standpoint, and the lyrics also seem a bit trite. Can’t argue with the sentiment, but it doesn’t exactly push the envelope.
Hits from this album: Slow Burn and Everyone Says Hi both got single releases, the latter doing better in the UK than the former.
My favourite song from this album: Lots of candidates, but the one that probably leaps to mind first is Gemini Spaceship.
Next up: Reality