| ||I hope Mr. Mathers won't mind if I write a somewhat idiosyncratic counterpoint to his enjoyable article, of which I found the analysis of 'DJ' especially interesting. While his article helps us to better appreciate Lodger, I'd like to consider why it hasn't been noticed as much as the earlier Berlin albums.
While I agree that Lodger is a good album, with more original ideas in each song than rock has produced in some years, it's never struck me the way the other two Berlin albums did. To my ear, some (though certainly not all) of the spirit of the earlier albums--and of Bowie--is curiously absent here. In fact, Lodger feels more like the early vocal Eno albums than anything in Bowie's 70's oeuvre. And while it certainly makes sense to read 'Fantastic Voyage' as a political song, I've never been comfortable doing so, partially because the vast majority of Bowie's songs have nothing to do with the political. My inclination, which may be unfair, is to view it through the lens of the rest of Bowie's career. You see, it's always seemed to me that the first verse of the song heralded a kind of resignation: the end of Bowie, or at least the end of the Bowie we knew in the 70s.
It's often apparent that artists, the more so the greater their work, don't really understand what they're doing. Which isn't to say that they don't have a feel for their art; only that they can't get a firm grip on it with concepts. And as it's rare to hear even a philosopher give a convincing conceptual account of a work of art, we shouldn't really expect such from an artist. Because of this, there's one mistake that's truly fatal for a great artist: to believe that he actually does know what he's been doing--and then do it in the manner dictated by his 'knowledge'. In fact, when this 'knowledge' is basically wrong, it only serves to guide him away from the valuable path that he is already on. The question of what happened to Bowie between Scary Monsters and Let's Dance has troubled me for a long time. I have a theory that his demise was foreshadowed by the Lodger album, and that the cause of this 'demise', as I'll rather dramatically call it, is roughly similar to an artist coming to 'know' what he's doing.
What, then, did Bowie, under the influence of Brian Eno, think was the important content of his music? Creativity and exploration: the most prominent elements of the Lodger album, and certainly qualities of his earlier work. These elements appear clearly in 'Move On', whose lyrics do form a kind of travelogue. Now, 'Move On' isn't a bad song. But the spirit that is so plainly visible in every track of 'Heroes' and Station to Station is nowhere to be found. Here we hear the traveler more than the searcher; an outtake from the recording of Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).
To return to 'Fantastic Voyage'. I won't dispute Mr. Mathers' political reading, but I think that, at least in the context of the problems I'm posing, another possibility presents itself. I'm inclined to interpret the 'Fantastic Voyage' as Bowie's own career, soon to end for all intents and purposes. Bowie sings: 'In the event that this fantastic voyage/should turn to erosion/and we never get old/remember it's true/dignity is valuable/but our lives are valuable too.' (For contrast, recall 'Blackout' from 'Heroes': 'I'm under Japanese influence/and my honor's at stake'.) Did Bowie come to think that the spirit that drove Station to Station, Low, and 'Heroes' was inimical to his life? Did it become a weight that he felt he had to shrug off? One wonders what giving up 'dignity' entails. He continues, 'We're learning to live with somebody's depression/and I don't want to live with somebody's depression'. Bowie once said that he was coming out of depression at the time of Lodger, fell back into it during the Scary Monsters period, and finally escaped from it entirely after the completion of that album. And we have to wonder again if an eventual conceptual association of the spirit of his best work with depression was the result of another failed attempt of an artist to 'know' that work, and not simply the decrease of a great man's powers as he aged.
All this comes into clearer relief when the lines 'dignity is valuable/but our lives are valuable too' are compared to a largely unknown early song, called 'Cygnet Committee' (the essential version is on the 'Bowie at the BEEB' collection). 'Cygnet Committee' is a terrible song--and, moreover, nearly incoherent--but it provides a glimpse into Bowie's original efforts that isn't available anywhere else. When it concludes with the words 'I want to believe/in the madness that calls now', and then the phrase 'I want to live' repeated more than ten times over, I find it difficult to imagine that Bowie thought it was even possible to separate a peculiar kind of artistic honor from the desire to live. (A closer analysis of the song would show this more clearly, but I won't waste time with it here.) It's true that 'Cygnet Committee' is the sound of a young man. But his spirit is not so dissimilar from that of the more mature voice we hear in 'Heroes'. In 'Fantastic Voyage', on the other hand, we hear the end of the link between the kind of dignity that he had once pursued and the life that he eventually decided was best for him. It's difficult to see this as anything other than the collapse of the vision of a new, artistic society that lurks within 'Heroes' and its replacement by a similar, but much weaker vision.
Creativity and exploration were always present in Bowie's work, but they were always in the service of an uncontainable spirit that had need of them for its own purposes. Only a misunderstanding of what Bowie was and what motivated him could see them as the primary element that made his work so striking. In my view, Lodger sits uneasily next to the other Berlin albums precisely because creativity and exploration have been put in control of a fading spirit that only flickers, now and then, into and out of the music. The important question, of course, which I won't try to answer here, is this: what exactly was the nature of the spirit that animated Bowie's best work? |