Thursday, August 20, 2009

Young Americans is a really odd album for a number of reasons. The first one that springs to mind is the fact that Bowie was obviously off his rocker at every step of the process, from conceptualization to writing to recording. Even if you had never read a single article or interview discussing the period wherein it is confirmed that he was in the dead midst of his mid-70s cocaine haze, it is plain that this is the product of a slightly unhinged mind. Certainly, coming off the heels of his early 70s hot streak, and finally burying all traces of his massively successful Ziggy Stardust persona (which had lingered through 1974's overblown, self-parodic Diamond Dogs), it's easy to see Young Americans as too glaring a tonal shift, too slick in execution to cover up the glaringly obvious flailing brought on by an acute lack of direction.

And I am sympathetic to that view. It's never been my favorite 70s Bowie album - and only the execrable Pin-Ups keeps it from being my least favorite of his peak-era material. (On most days I manage to forget Pin-Ups altogether.) One of the criticisms often leveled against Bowie - and I think it's a fair criticism - is that his concept work can overshadow the actual bread-and-butter work of the songwriting and performing. It bears repeating that he is a dynamite performer and one of the all-time great songwriters of the rock pantheon - but there are a few occasions where his desire to make some kind of conceptual statement overcomes his better instincts - where the style obscures the substance (to cite another type of hoary, oft-dismissed dichotomy). Diamond Dogs, I would argue, is one such occasion: his ambition for that project never quite recovered from losing the official imprimatur of the George Orwell estate to make a 1984 musical, and in retrospect the estate was probably right not to hand over the keys to one of the 20th century's great literary masterworks to someone who was in the grips of a years-long cocaine binge. There's great material on the disc, certainly - a lot of good stuff - but you're never for one second unaware of just how freaked-out and paranoid the whole enterprise actually is. It's an uncomfortable album to hear in one sitting, at least for me. It sounds decadent, and in many ways an unhealthy experience for both musician and audience.

Young Americans tried to abandon glam by going whole-heartedly into a new idiom, "Plastic Soul". Bowie's attempts at soul were, perhaps unavoidably, still very, very glam - but not necessarily in a flattering way. There is an inauthenticity to the proceedings that seems definitively willful. This was, it must be remembered, at the tail end of a long era wherein tons of other white British dudes had experimented with American genres such as country, blues and R&B - you know, basically every UK pop musician since 1958. It doesn't seem jarring anymore because eventually this kind of transnational "experimentation" became de rigeur - no one bats an eye when we hear about slum kids in Dakar or Chinese factory brats becoming rappers, even though they obviously didn't come from the Bronx and pay their dues to Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. The notion of "authenticity" in pop music had been on life-support since the early 60s, even if you'll still occasionally find folks kicking that old canard around the block. Bowie, however, seems to believe that the "inauthenticity" of his plastic soul work is its only real hook, and in practice it comes across as overly aggressive and downright sneering.

Put simply, the album stumbles more than it succeeds. About half of the album consists of dead-on "quiet storm" R&B & funk pastiches - "Win", "Fascination", "Right", "Can You Hear Me?" - which, for me at least, can't really overcome the fact that this is a dreadfully boring genre to lampoon, especially when the singer is carrying on with that slightly sinister leer affixed to his face. You can't help but wondering what the hell he's actually trying to accomplish.

I've already discussed my antipathy towards "Fame", a trifling pseudo-funk white boy shamble of a song - like Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets" - whose popular acclaim never fails to astound me. But then, buried deep inside the album, you've got two dynamite tracks that are good enough they almost seem as if they stumbled in off an entirely different, and far superior album. Despite my antipathy towards much of the album, "Somebody Up There Likes Me" is nevertheless one of my top 5 Bowie tracks, a damned masterpiece that is almost good enough to redeem the whole enterprise. Oddly, and much like "Absolute Beginners", I never seem to see this track mentioned anywhere. It's probably the living definition of a "deep cut", and, like "Absolute Beginners", it would have been a career-defying mega-hit for just about everyone else. But for Bowie, he buries it on side two of a mediocre 70s album.

Why do I like this song so much? Well, if everything else on the record seems rootless and downright itchy with some kind of stylistic counterfeit (Luther Vandross or no Luther Vandross), this track hits the downbeat with every bit of the confidence that's lacking throughout the rest of the album. And what is the song about, really? It goes the further step of articulating the shiftless, spiritual nausea of Bowie's cocaine period - taking the ambiguity and blatant searching that had sat as subtext for the last few albums and putting it right up front: where am I? what am I looking for? Well, here's the answer, in a straight-forward gospel context: somebody up there, somebody with a line on the divine, some man with a heavenly plan, he likes me, he's keeping me together even if I don't even know why he's bothering.

Bowie's always struck me as a profoundly agnostic person, but that hardly subtracts from this song's profound statement of faith: someone at their lowest point, begging for a line on sanity, some proof of meaning from the depths of a drug-and-fame addled spiritual nadir. I'm an atheist and it makes even me believe in the power of faith to heal and redeem, at least for the six and a half minute running time. In an album of po-faced, frankly silly R&B posturing, this is an honest-to-God gospel classic. It's Stevie Wonder's "Misstra Know-It-All" written by a hopped-up Brit with delusions of alienation, and yet it somehow works.

My other favorite is his cover of that old hoary chestnut, "All Across the Universe". This is probably my favorite version of the track. I've seen this reading described as "hysterical", and although that was probably meant as a pejorative description, it's nonetheless pretty apt. If "Somebody Up There Likes Me" was the question, this is the answer. The song is fairly preposterous to begin with - I know, the Beatles being ponderous and self-important, who ever would have guessed? - but Bowie sells it because he sings like a man under a death sentence. This is desperation: fiery pleading with a straight-up crazy glint in the corner of his eye. Here is the real soul that could have enlightened so much of the desultory, feckless material on the rest of the album.

And here as well, on the confident, unabashedly emotional core of an otherwise underwhelming transitory album - is the first glimpse of of the "plastic soul" period's real fruition - 1976's mature, disco-tinged Station to Station, also my personal contender for Bowie's overall best album.

Part One, Two, Three

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