David Bowie - Lodger
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
And so with Lodger we come to the end of another phase of David Bowie’s career; the end of his sustained collaboration with Eno, the end of the Berlin period (although Lodger was recorded in Switzerland), the end of Bowie’s ridiculous burst of creativity that produced three classics in two years, and the end of the 70s. By the time Bowie put together Scary Monsters in 1980 he’d moved on to an entirely different sound. This album was the last gasp of an old regime.
So where does this leave the oft-overlooked Lodger? It’s lacking the sweaty, manic desperation of Station To Station, the belated classic status of Low or the epochal grandeur of ”Heroes”. It’s slight to the point of invisibility, ten tracks in 35 minutes with nary a grand statement in sight. And upon its release, everyone—Bowie, Eno, Adrian Belew, Carlos Alomar, the record label—was underwhelmed.
I come, however, not to bury Lodger but to praise it. We’ve had decades for the album to ingratiate itself to our ears, and it has been (partially) successful—Belew, for example, now dubs it “the greatest thing Bowie has given to the world”. It is perhaps the great lost Bowie album, with not a single dud to be found in the ten songs and maybe the finest second half of any of his efforts.
The album’s first side takes up where ”Heroes” left off with “The Secret Life Of Arabia”. It’s a hasty travelogue, switching locales as fast as possible. “Fantastic Voyage” leads off, however, with political commentary (“Dignity is valuable, but our lives are valuable too”) that, as with so much political music, resounds clearly today. As with everything from the Clash’s early work to Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime”, “Fantastic Voyage” and its refrain of “It’s a moving world, but that’s no reason / To shoot some of those missiles / Think of us as fatherless scum / It won’t be forgotten / ‘Cause we’ll never say anything nice again, will we?” might as well have been written today. It’s enough to make one think that current events aren’t so much a return to Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney as it is that these kinds of rulers are the status quo and we’ve merely had an unprecedented (and illusory) break from them in the past decade. “Fantastic Voyage”, in addition to being a fantastic showcase for Bowie’s vocals (stronger than ever throughout Lodger), sets the stage with foreboding.
But before we can worry too much about nuclear apocalypse, Bowie sweeps us into “African Night Flight”, complete with Swahili chant (David Bowie: walking the fine line between exploring other cultures and musical colonialism since at least ’79) and fast, very British proto-rap. It works better on record than it does on paper, thanks to the short run time and frantic pace. If “African Night Flight” (and later “D.J.”) shows that Bowie and Talking Heads were paying attention to each other in the late 70’s (a safe bet, considering Eno), it’s also the sort of song where the comparisons between Kate Bush and Bowie make the most sense. Play it side by side with “Sat In Your Lap” or especially “The Dreamers” and you may wish, as I do, that the two had collaborated.
Like “The Dreaming”, “African Night Flight” depicts a colonial figure that in some ways has “gone native” but remains oppressive despite whatever sympathy for the inhabitants of the country the narrator has. “African Night Flight” also engages in a wonderful rushed expressionism, Bowie chanting,
Struggle with a child whose screaming dreaming
Drowned by the props all steely sunshine
Sick of you, sick of me
Lust for the free life
Quashed and maimed
Like a valuable loved one
until it makes sense.
But he must, at least for the first part of Lodger, “Move On”. Initially sweeping and calm, Bowie idly muses on where to escape to next (Russia? Japan? Cyprus?) before collapsing into a fevered cry of “Cannot forget you / Cannot forget you”, the emotional reserve of the rich vacationer revealed again as emotional camouflage. The track is wonderful too, even if it is just “All The Young Dudes” played backwards by the new band (hence the eerie, almost wordless backing vocals).
But from “Move On” Bowie switches to an actual first person account of life in a different culture, “Yassassin (Turkish For: Long Live)”. The track itself is fairly odd, a Jamaican sounding rhythm section (actually a corruption of the one from “Fame”) pit against a wailing electric violin and keyboard and a picked, vaguely Eastern guitar part. I have no idea what Turkish music sounds like, but I could believe “Yassassin” is a late 70s update of it. Meanwhile, Bowie sings from the perspective of one of the dwellers of a Turkish café, weaving scattered impressions of violence and foreboding (“I have a love and she is afeared”) but rejecting hasty generalizations: “Look at this—then look at us”.
“Red Sails” rounds out the first side of Lodger with the most important musical moment so far. Although Adrian Belew is all over this album, it’s not until “Red Sails” that his guitar work really shines. The song is a bit of doggerel (possibly about pirates), but as the track fades out to Bowie’s nonsensical syllables and the chaotic howl of the taped-together composite solo, it hits you just how good Belew’s work here, whether edited or left alone, really is. You couldn’t possibly play the solo on “Red Sails” without editing, but as with the other guitar parts on the album it is a thing of acerbic beauty, unfolding out towards the avant-garde while still carrying the tune. And while the songs on Lodger were and are counter-intuitive on first encounter, they are unmistakably pop, if pop of a particularly mutated strain.
The second half of Lodger could not be more different from the first without weakening the album. Location is no longer important, or even mentioned; instead we get a set of songs that grapple with existential decay. “DJ”, in addition to being one of the best songs on Lodger, sets the stage for the second side in much the same way “Fantastic Voyage” did.
What makes “DJ” relatively unique, and also frequently misinterpreted, is the narrative of the song, which has little if anything to do with music, DJing, or any similar topic. As opposed to other rock songs with DJs as lyrical focuses (see, for example, “Panic” by The Smiths), the narrator’s job here is completely irrelevant. When Bowie despairs that “I am a DJ, I am what I play” the sentiment could easily be interchanged with any other work activity. “DJ” is neither celebrating DJ culture nor condemning it, the music and the activity is merely a framework to hang the song upon. Note the opening lines of “I’m home, lost my job / And incurably ill / You think this is easy realism / I’ve got a girl out there / I suppose”. “DJ” is a horror story about a human being reduced to nothing more than work, and even if we can agree that being a DJ is a better job than plenty of others, there is still something strongly (and deliberately) off-putting about the narrator and his story. The “easy realism” line sticks out of the above-quoted section strongly, but the whole second half of Lodger is a rejection of “easy realism”, poking beneath the surface to get at the often repelling guts of the matter at hand in each song.
“DJ” closes with Bowie’s cry of “I am the DJ and I‘ve got believers”, but although “DJ” retreats into hedonism to avoid confronting the problems of life much like Station To Station, here Bowie is not trapped into that mindset, instead presenting it as someone else’s situation. Bowie has transcended that particular form of denial. “Look Back In Anger”, however, deals with something a bit more serious than even the disaffection in “DJ”. Although vocally the song is Bowie’s audition for the part of the Phantom of the Opera (if he was any more over the top during the chorus, the song would blow apart), the actual tale is stranger and more affecting than anything else on Lodger (or, even, most of Bowie’s work). An encounter between the narrator (and at this stage of Bowie’s career, we can again return to being fairly sure that the narrator of his songs is not him) and the Angel of Death, “Look Back In Anger” is missing several crucial parts of a normal narrative, things like a conclusion, context, plot or characters. As performed it’s a superb piece of unreality, bolstered by a busily churning backing highlighted by Carlos Alomar’s fine quasi-solo. It also boasts one of Bowie’s best opening verses, grounding the cryptic account with weary mundanity:
"You know who I am," he said
The speaker was an angel
He coughed and shook his crumpled wings
Closed his eyes and moved his lips
"It's time we should be going"
But the narrator doesn’t go with the angel and no one really seems to notice him. The calm of the verses is contrasted with Bowie’s bawling delivery of the chorus, and the song flip flops back and forth between restraint and terror.
If “Look Back In Anger” is the second side of Lodger’s somersault into metaphysical oddness, “Boys Keep Swinging” drags us back into the territory of “DJ”. The song is most famous for both its stylistic similarity to past efforts such as “All The Young Dudes” and “Oh! You Pretty Things” and the fact that Bowie had his band change instruments so that the track has a more amateur feel. Whoever plays drums keeps things very simple, but the bassline is one of the best of the album, and the closing guitar shriek is surprisingly effective in its primitivism. The true strength of “Boys Keep Swinging”, however, besides its amiability as a fabulous pop song, is that its exultation of “boys” is so overdone that the song becomes a critique. Things may be better (slightly?) now than in 1979, but the song prompts one to ask why it is that “Heaven loves ya / The clouds part for ya / Nothing stands in your way / When you’re a boy”.
The contrast between the raucous “Boys Keep Swinging” and the deadened “Repetition” is deliberate and effective. As the former crashes to a halt, a single guitar starts and then a simple, unchanging two-note bass part starts up. The drums and bass hold steady while the guitar wavers and splinters above it, while Bowie sings the finest portrayal (and thus most harrowing, and thus most sadly true to life, and thus the strongest denunciation) of spousal abuse in modern music.
“Repetition” begins its case with a simple fact that these sorts of songs often leave out: “Johnny was a man / And he’s bigger than her”. The only explicit involvement of Bowie’s narrator in the story he tells is a brief “don’t hit her” that almost gets lost between verses. Most strikingly, “Repetition” locates the ultimate cause for the abuse not in the relation of husband and wife but in the husband’s psyche and issues found thereof; “And he could have had a Cadillac / If the school had taught him right / And he could have married Anne in the blue silk blouse”. The unnamed wife is absent from this section because her and her actions (supper cooling on the table) quite literally have nothing to do with her husband’s sins. There is no fault on her part, and although his actions are explained, there is no sympathy for the abuser. There is just the empty bass twang and the true aftereffects of abuse: “I guess the bruises won’t show / If she wears long sleeves / But the space in her eyes / Shows through”.
Through it all, although we can tell where Bowie’s sympathies lie, he retains an almost complete lack of affect; even the “don’t hit her” line is calmly spoken. The title is apt, as the bass continues inexorably and Bowie’s story almost seems to struggle against the inevitability of its telling.
If Lodger is the forgotten Bowie album, the powerful and queasily affecting “Repetition” is its most unjustly forgotten song, even more so than “Fantastic Voyage”, “Red Money” or “DJ”. On a certain level the song, with its blank description, is almost chillingly cold, but that an artist of Bowie’s stature could write such a song about such a topic without once falling into platitudes or lazy moralizing (or “easy realism”) almost beggars belief. Any true Bowie best-of should include “Repetition”, but unsurprisingly none of them do.
To end Lodger on this note would be cruelly depressive (and incredibly incongruous), so there is still one song left, the almost funky (due mostly to bassist George Murray) “Red Money”. Retreating to the more impressionistic writing of “Look Back In Anger”, Bowie and his backing vocalists spin a tale of a business’ (a government’s?) economic collapse. On a purely musical level it is probably the finest track on Lodger, seeing the album out on a high of chanted, indelible chorus, and note-perfect soaring music, bringing to mind skyscrapers and stock markets.
So why did Lodger do so poorly? I’ve heard that the original release suffered from an untenably muddy mix (I’ve only heard the crisp 1999 digital remaster done by EMI), and even with proper separation the songs here do not necessarily grab the listener immediately, with the exception of the stretch from “DJ” to “Boys Keep Swinging”, which sounds like an alternate-universe Greatest Hits. One complaint that can be leveled at the album is that while these ten songs are all individually great, they often don’t cohere into a pleasing whole, especially on the first half of the album.
Neither the label nor Bowie was particularly interested in pushing Lodger, and while Bowie occasionally includes some of these songs into his live sets, mostly the album has languished in obscurity. To add insult to injury for Bowie fans in 1979, Lodger had a bizarre cover, Bowie’s seemingly fractured legs stretched out above a postcard (the back finding a mashed up Bowie lying on the ground looking as if he’d just seen something very unpleasant), which was probably the least inviting of his career.
Commercially, Bowie would bounce back in a year with “Ashes To Ashes” and Scary Monsters, but he never again produced an album of pop as warped (by other cultures, by the horror of a dead existence, by odd left-turns) as Lodger. While Low and ”Heroes” get most of the plaudits, Lodger boasted the virtues of the first sides of both without the (admittedly stunning) instrumental half. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of ”Heroes”, Lodger is well worth checking out.