“They took away our clothes and things.
And pumped us full of strange drugs.”
The park is crowded and the night is warm. I leave my stretching place near the movie theatre, cross the bicycle lane, and move courteously to the right of the path, cursing the natives who stifle society’s attempt to solve this most basic of coordination problems. A Japanese woman shouts directly into my ear drums, and I begin my first Bowie run since moving to New York.
Despite the fact that the artist was reaching for commercial success on this album, the opening track is experimental even by Bowie’s standards. As I listen to it now, I think of the first time I heard this album. I was a teenager, walking home through a small park in Caroline Springs. Having listened solely to Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the claim that Scary Monsters is one of Bowie’s great album – and certainly the last good one – confused me.
Tonight, running through a substantially larger park in Brooklyn, my familiarity with Bowie’s less accessible work affords me a better insight into the claim. Before reviewing this album more thoroughly, though, I suppose I ought to explain my six month absence from this blog and expatriation from Australia.
Any attempt to explain why I moved would inevitably be tedious, so I’ll do my best to keep it to a sentence. Staring down the barrel of a career in law, I decided that a trip to a jurisdiction with which I am entirely unfamiliar would be the most appropriate way to avoid becoming a proper adult. Regarding my absence, I wish to apologise.
My apology is not so much directed at you, reader, as it is to my creativity and motivation. At some point in the move, I just lost it. Running took a backseat to filling out documents and hunting for jobs and apartments. It would also be accurate to say that weight-loss took a backseat to bagels, a habit to which I am still attempting to adjust.
I stayed with friends during the first month. Having to quickly decide where to set up, I spent a lot of hours walking around Brooklyn in the middle of a heatwave. It was almost a full month until I had access to a set of bathroom scales and I expected the worst. After finding a sublet for a month, I thought it was time to finally acknowledge the damage that had been done.
I found a Target at Astor place, made my way to the electronics section, and reluctantly handed over my twenty dollars. After I had lugged the awkard box home, I put the scales down on the floor and tapped the middle with my foot, setting the numbers to zero. I stood on them, and looked down in disbelief. The verdict: 73.5 (161 pounds) – the lowest it had been since my first year of highschool. I checked multiple times, on multiple surfaces, but the result did not change. I was astounded.
Perhaps, with the frantic nature of life in this city, I would have no further need of Bowie and the runs which he had accompanied me on. I began to assume that my goal could be reached without effort, and went on with my life.
Decimal point by decimal point, my weight climbed back up. It was not until it hit 77 kilograms (170 pounds) that I realised that – by progressively dropping positive habits from my life – I had become the complacent slug I promised myself I would never become again. Still, I did nothing. It was not until the first Sunday in August that I finally remembered what I was supposed to be doing.
Sunday was the day that The Man Who Fell to Earth was shown as part of the David Bowie film festival. I bought my ticket, and managed to convince my girlfriend to come along for the experience, an act which would give her movie-veto power for the rest of our lives. The film was, quite possibly, the worst cinematic atrocity I have ever endured. The central premise is that Bowie’s planet is in distress, and Bowie comes to Earth to seek out a solution. Whilst this sounds reasonable, the actual execution is fucking ridiculous.
Bowie steps into the shoes of a reclusive billionaire and makes a series of decisions that grow the company’s portfolio, angering men whose interests conflict with Bowie’s. His ultimate aim is to use the company to get back to his family, delivering much needed water to their dehydrated planet of hairless space-travellers. He consults with a womanising professor (Rip Torn) to achieve his aims, and takes a vapid hotel staffer as a second wife. He breaks down whilst watching a wall of TVs (yelling “get out of my head”), but refuses to turn them off. The acting is terrible, the dialogue unbelievable, and the storytelling utterly flawed.
That said, in the middle of this very serious film, Bowie’s earth-wife makes him a tray of cookies, and I had the privilege of bearing witness to the following unexpected scene. At that point, I lost it. I laughed uncontrollably, as did my girlfriend. Upon discovering we were alone in our prolonged amusement, I had to leave the theatre for a while. After several attempts to re-enter, I found myself cackling hysterically in the bathroom for approximately twenty minutes, which was easily the most enjoyable part of the film.
When it was over, I was exhausted. I did, however, make two resolutions. The first, obviously, was never to watch that film again. The second was to finish what I had started. Despite all that I had seen, Bowie’s strange role reminded me that we can choose to reinvent ourselves, and that – whilst the decisions we make are not always sound – there is always hope, as long as we are moving towards a goal.
And if Bowie could show his face in the public after this terrible film, surely I could make it through 13 more albums. It was hard to run in Manhattan, with the many traffic lights and my distance from Central Park, but when I finally moved somewhere with access to a park, I jumped on the opportunity immediately. And that takes us to now, and to this album.
The opening track is abrasive. It’s an interesting composition, but Bowie’s use of the cut-up technique is apparent in an obtrusive way, and the track as a whole doesn’t feel particularly cogent. Up the Hill Backwards is eclectic, but deals with the passing of age in a cheerful fashion, with a hook that is difficult not to love. There’s also a fantastic moment when Bowie lets out an “eww” that is nearly as odd as Mike Patton’s infamous pre-solo moan on FNM’s cover of Easy Like Sunday Morning.
After this comes the title track. It’s not a favourite of mine, but it does stand out as the most coherent track so far. Lines like “She opened strange doors that we’d never close again” and “now she’s stupid in the street and she can’t socialize” clear references to drugs and rock and roll, two areas with which Bowie is greatly familiar. Unfortunately it’s also broken up by lyrics that seem uncharacteristically nonsensical. I can only assume that the line “waiting at the lights – know what I mean?” must be some sort attempt at sexual innuendo. But to answer the question inherent in the lyric- no, I really don’t.
As the album pushes forward, though, it takes on a different character. Ashes to Ashes, for example, is haunting. The eighties percussion and sparse musical landscape of the track are executed brilliantly. The lyrics too move back in the direction of Bowie’s better work. My favourite passage begins with a subtle reference to Space Oddity – “I heard a rumour from ground control. Oh no – don’t say it’s true”, before more overtly revealing that the man we idolised was in fact a junkie – “Strung out in heaven, high, hitting an all time low.” (Spoiler alert: Major Tom is Bowie).
The message? Sometimes our heros are nothing more than drug addicts. The line “time and again I tell myself. I’ll stay clean tonight” saddens me. I’m fortunate enough not to have been cursed with any addiction like Bowie’s, but it reminds me of the day I weighed the most I ever weighed. I was looking at those scales, and I was disgusted. I told myself I would never do it again, but I had said it so many times before.
What I did to finally get it right is a mystery to me, but I did, and I suspect it’s the same with drug addictions. Fatty or junkie, you get worse and worse – fail and fail – until you do that one extra thing, learn that one extra mental trick, and then finally you don’t. Serious points aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to the following section of the song, where you can hear yet another fucking weird moan.
Fashion is an interesting cut, again because it proves that Bowie is still aware of his own image. It’s one of Bowie’s most playful tracks to date – “We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town – beep beep” – but, as a result, there’s not a lot of depth to it. Teenage wildlife, on the other hand, is brilliantly crafted and often surprising.
The diversity of Bowie’s vocal range is impressive, going from falsetto to gutteral to choir-of-Bowies, with vocal harmonies and punctuated words throughout. It is well documented that Bowie intended the song as an attack on new wave artists, and he has admitted that Gary Numan was a specific target. Initially, I disliked it. But the amount of changes which occur seamlessly before the five minute mark, together with lines like “Ugly as a teenage as a teenage millionaire/pretending it’s a whizz kid world” elevate this to one of my favourite Bowie tracks of all time.
Despite its dystopian narrative Scream Like a Baby is a weaker track. It’s hard to discount the opening lyrics “Well I wouldn’t buy no merchandise/And I wouldn’t go to war. And I mixed with other colours. But the nurse doesn’t care”, but something about it feels forced. To be fair, however, the Rocky-esque section at the beginning of the song made me feel pretty awesome as I ran past all these police cars.
Disregarding the entirely nondescript Kingdome Come, the next track – Because You’re Young – brings in what is easily the best guitar intro on the album. The pre-choruses differ greatly from the verses, and do not suggest the chorus which follows. Somehow, it all flows perfectly. The lyrics take the form of advice, presumably to Bowie’s son, but it evades the cheesiness of Cat Stevens’ Father and Son easily. The line “Because you’re young, you’ll meet a stranger one night… and it makes me sad” is an honest reflection of the fact that – although we might wish the world for our children – we can still be jealous of them, and the inherent potential that youth brings. The album closes with a slower version of the opening track, sans the Japanese. It’s a fantastic contrast, and it clearly signposts the shift in tone over the course of the album.
Ultimately, it’s not an easy album to form a clear opinion about. Some of the tracks aren’t as hooky as Bowie’s previous work, but there are incredible surprises on almost every song. These come in various forms: unexpected backing vocals, melodies that come in late and never get repeated, choruses that come from nowhere, and bridges that move the action in a direction I would never have anticipated. Musically, it’s hard to deny that the album is brilliant.
That said, it’s possibly Bowie’s least accessible album so far, and there are definitely some weak moments. In exchange for those moments, however, you get a level of compositional originality that is exactly the reason anyone listens to Bowie. And so my opinion of this album is that it depends what you want out of it. If you want to be surprised by the direction of a track (or find yourself listening to a guitar section in 7/4 without realising), This is your album. And if you’re looking for lyrics that combine the poetic with the absurd delivered with the most vocal diversity of any Bowie album to date, it’s definitely worth the five or so listens it takes to wrap your head around it. But if you’re looking for straight hooks and pop sensibilities, I’d most definitely look elsewhere.