In preparation for The Next Day, David Bowie’s first album of newly-recorded material in ten years, I’ll be taking a retrospective look at each of the singer’s official studio albums ranging from 1967 to the upcoming release date of March 12, 2013.
Ziggy Stardust was a character present in name on only one of David Bowie’s many albums, yet the shadow of this persona nevertheless spread across a number of subsequent releases. However, with the farewell to glam that was Diamond Dogs, the alter ego of Ziggy was finally shed and Bowie was left to stand on his own.
Young Americans (1975) is Bowie’s first album to emerge in the wake of Ziggy’s (actual) retirement, and it does give the impression that the singer is searching for a new voice. But in that sense, this record is an interesting exercise in stylistic exploration.
Furthering himself from the glam rock sound that defined that last few years of his career, Bowie chooses here to explore the avenue of American soul and R&B music. An interesting avenue for a white man from Britain to navigate. But in a number of instances, the album finds a certain brilliance within these parameters.
The title track that begins the album proved to be his biggest US success at this point in time as it reached #28 in the Billboard charts, and with its engaging story of two lovers, textured R&B sounds, and a fantastic vocal performance by Bowie, it stands as one of the singer’s most captivating performances of this period.
Closing the album is another standout moment on Young Americans. The immortal song “Fame” was Bowie’s first #1 hit in America, and rightfully so. With a co-writing credit belonging to John Lennon, searing vocals, and an intriguing guitar riff, the song’s legacy is well-founded.
The material that is found between these two pillars that bookend the album is more hit-or-miss. To be fair, none of the songs on this collection can are poorly done. Indeed, even with Bowie’s radical genre-jumping, everything here is well-crafted and pulled of with a good deal of finesse. If there’s a problem, it’s simply that a lot of these songs are, sadly, forgettable.
That isn’t to say that there are no other highlights to be found. In particular, “Can You Hear Me?” is an emotionally powerful song of the inevitable loss of love and “Fascination” gives the album a darkly exciting funk track. But apart from these cuts, the remainder of Young Americans is largely ineffectual.
It can’t be said that this album was a misguided attempt. On the contrary, it did doubtlessly spawn some brilliant material. It might be fair to say that the charm of this record is its boldness in exploring an unexpected avenue of music.
Overall, it may not be a great record per se, but the path it would soon forge in Bowie’s career would yield some remarkable results.
My Rating: 3 out of 5
Highlights: “Young Americans,” “Win,” “Fascination,” “Can You Hear Me,” “Fame”
A Very Bowie Moment: “Ain’t there a man who can say no more? Ain’t there a woman I can sock on the jaw?” – “Young Americans”
Best Edition: The best extras are on the 2007 collector’s edition. With this set you’ll get the non-album (but still pretty cool) “Who Can I Be Now?” and “It’s Gonna Be Me.” Also included is a DVD featuring Bowie’s 1975 performance on The Dick Cavett Show complete with an awkward (and probably cocaine-fueled) interview.
By the way, David Bowie on Soul Train is endlessly funny to me.
Station to Station
Young Americans may not be one of David Bowie’s greatest albums, but it did open up a new avenue of music apart from glam rock. And in his next album, Station to Station, these ideas are expanded upon, and, in Bowie’s case, they truly reach their fruition.
Unlike its predecessor however, this 1976 release showed a new, more detached persona adapted in Bowie’s performances, and in many ways, it’s what makes Station to Station so engaging.
The progressive title track on the album introduces us to the Thin White Duke, an alter ego not as wide-sweeping or fantastical as Ziggy before him, but one just as unforgettable. The finely-dressed, aristocratic Duke was, presumably, not very far away from Bowie’s own attitude at the time. Moreover, it might be fair to assume that the coldly-detached romanticism that overrides the album may have been a result of the singer’s heavy dependence on cocaine at the time.
Bowie has since been quoted as saying that his drug habit had escalated to such a point that he doesn’t recall anything about the making of this album. As he is quoted in Nicholas Pegg’s book, The Complete David Bowie, “I know it was in LA because I’ve read it was.”
The album begins with the ominous introduction of our narrator for the next six songs, slowly crescendo-ing until the singer makes his cinematic entrance. “The return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lover’s eyes,” he sings. The epically-structured song is perhaps the finest moment on the record, and with good reason. While it adapts the R&B style of the previous record, it takes a more experimental edge that was sorely missing from its predecessor. In this case, electronic music was introduced into the soulful sonic landscape, and it pays off quite well.
The album continues with equally strong cuts such as “Golden Years,” the album’s most pop-oriented R&B track, allegedly composed with Elvis Presley in mind, the hard-driven riffing on sexual exploration in “Stay,” and the upbeat ruminations of a woman being devoured by a television set (no, I’m not kidding) in “TVC15.”
The most impactful moments on Station to Station, however, lie in its quiet moments. In “Word on a Wing,” we hear Bowie break through the cold stoicism of the Thin White Duke and give a desperate cry of vulnerability. Bowie has admitted on various occasions that the period during which this album was made was a particular dark period of his life, and it shows in this piece of work. The singer tries to reach out to a higher power as he is “trying hard to fit among your scheme of things,” and his desire for solace is palpable.
Another such moment gracefully brings the album to a close. “Wild is the Wind” is Station to Station’s only cover song, and the ballad is incorporated with great impact. With one of Bowie’s most touching vocal deliveries, we are again shown the reserved vulnerabilities of the narrator in his longings for love and understanding. “Like the leaf clings to the tree, oh my darling, cling to me,” he sings.
Station to Station is often placed alongside some of Bowie’s finest works, and that reputation is well-deserved. With its cool delivery, confidently soulful presentation, and fledging ideas of experimentation in electronic music, it is certainly one of the most rewarding listens of Bowie’s discography and an essential addition to any self-respecting music lover’s collection.
My Rating: 5 out of 5
Highlights: There are six tracks on the album. Each one is a highlight.
A Very Bowie Moment: “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine. I’m thinking that it must be love.” – “Station to Station”
Best Edition: The 2010 reissue would be your best bet on this one. With the remaster of the album along with a live recording of Bowie’s performance at the Nassau Coliseum, it’s definitely worth the extra money. And if you’re really devoted, shell out the extra dough for the deluxe edition with five CDs, one DVD, and three vinyl LPs.