Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Absolute Beginners" is one of my favorite Bowie songs, and probably one of my favorite songs, period. It is consistently overlooked, which is not to say entirely forgotten - but still, it's a classic and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as similarly-themed ballads such as "Heroes" and "Time".

If you need to be convinced at this late date about the depth and breadth of Bowie's catalog, remember that this track dropped in the middle of what is generally considered his nadir - 1986, right between the twin supernovas of suck Tonight and Never Let Me Down, and right before the ill-considered Tin Machine period. (Of course, there are still things on both of his mid 80s albums which I quite like, and Tin Machine certainly has its share of admirers.) Regardless: it wasn't even an album cut, but a one-off recorded for the soundtrack to a forgotten adaptation of Colin MacInnes's novel of the same name. Bowie did quite a number of these soundtrack bits in the period, and it's easy to dismiss them en masse because of their abstruse relation to his "proper" discography*. But a track like "Absolute Beginners" is proof that even at his very worst, he was still capable of sloughing off a true gem when the mood struck him.

Like most of his 80s work, there's no "persona" in play here, no conceptual baggage (aside from the film connection) as in his peak 70s or 90s resurgence material. Just a simple love song, almost a silly thing, with a slight doo-wop vamp and some orchestral flourishes. For any other artist this would be a career-defining hit, the type of thing that gets played at high school proms from here to eternity (cf. Seal's "Kiss From A Rose"), but for Bowie, because of his critical reputation as a "serious" songwriter, a track like this is seen as a fluke. I'm hardly a fan of contemporary pop balladry but Bowie pulls it off because, you know, this is the guy who sang one of the greatest doomed love songs ever written, this is the guy who had a huge chart hit with a song called "Modern Love" which wasn't actually about love but about anxiety and social conformity (set to a great New Wave beat so you could still dance to it, 'natch).

So yeah, if he wants to sing an actual, honest-to-God love song, complete with a sweeping chorus and saxophone solo? Well, hell, let's give it a go.
As long as you're still smiling,
There's nothing more I need.
I absolutely love you,
But we're absolute beginners;
But if my love is your love,
We're certain to succeed.
Simple words, simple sentiment, but never simplistic: it's just a simple, beautiful song, consistently forgotten and underrated. One of these days someone is going to latch onto this song and make it a huge hit - could be some up-and-coming indie chanteuse, a jittery British punk band, or even an American Idol finalist. It's a good enough song that you can easily see it surviving the transposition into any number of other idioms. It's underperformed even by Bowie, never covered, highly obscure: ripe for rediscovery.

* For the life of me I'll never understand the affection for "This Is Not America", which commits the twin cardinal sins of pop music by being both boring and pretentious.

Part One, Two

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