Saturday, January 23, 2016

YEAR OF BOWIE: David Bowie's 1969 Eponymous Album (later rereleased as Space Oddity)

In the wake of David Bowie's recent passing, Schenkerian Gang Signs has declared 2016 to be the Year of Bowie. To commemorate, we will be exploring all twenty-seven of Bowie's studio albums at a rate of one every two weeks or so. Along the way, we will explore the gamut of Bowie's achievements, from granular musical analysis to broader notions of artistic trajectories. 

Not the original album cover, but still of interest

One of the neat visualizations that is made available when you purchase a digital album through Amazon shows the popularity of certain tracks with an orange bar next to the title (popularity, I assume, that is derived from how often that track is selected by those who have purchased the album digitally). For example, when I bought the remastered version of David Bowie's 1969 album (originally titled David Bowie, later rereleased as Space Oddity), I learned that one track is pretty clearly the winner:

Now I am not currently planning to buy all of the albums in Bowie's discography, only those that I find have tracks that I really enjoy and that I would choose to listen to outside of this tribute oeuvre review that I am doing. However, one track on this album really caught my attention and contrary to pretty much everyone who has bought this one digitally, it was not 'Space Oddity.' This is not to say that 'Space Oddity' is subpar or anything. It was Bowie's first hit, it's a classic song, it brings up the theme of space and what the concept of space beings (Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, whoever is living on Mars) symbolize within the context of Bowie's works. But it wasn't my favorite this time around while listening to this album. Maybe I've heard it too much--it is one of the very few tracks of Bowie's that gets general play at places like your local Whole Foods (not a random example, this is based on my personal experience). Who knows.

I will ardently defend my choice of best track on this album, which is 'Cygnet Committee' (and also what I would call my early David Bowie cover band, were I to create one). 'Cygnet Committee' is a nine-minute ode to the kind of passionate anger that I associate with youth, a track that ends with Bowie in a near-scream declaring 'I WANT TO LIVE' over a martial rhythm in the band. It is glorious. It is the song that you wanted that night when you were in your early 20s and you were all mad at your friends about something and maybe you were somewhere between tipsy and fully drunk and you just didn't know what to do and you were just angry and frustrated you wanted to express your feelings and possibly Drama Ensued. Bowie did that for you. Bowie wrote your early 20s tipsy anger anthem. If it had a disco beat, it would rival Donna Summers' 'Macarthur Park' in its grandiloquence.

'Cygnet Committee' is ostensibly about Bowie's disillusionment with an attempt he made to reach the youth through an organization called the Arts Lab and how that didn't work, and his reaction about feeling drained and used and abused by these youth. But that actually doesn't matter, not even one iota. This is a song about sentiment, not about a situation (in my head, I made up a credible interpretation of this song as a representation of Charles Manson which does not even make sense in terms of chronology). Because everyone, at some point, feels put out by someone or something in life that is draining and uses you and to some extent, abuses you. And that is what this song is. It sounds like the prototype for the final track on Ziggy Stardust, 'Rock and Roll Suicide,' which captures an equally dramatic sentiment, but in one third of the time.

Bowie accomplishes this through the most traditional of means: his harmonies are almost major, but never quite. There are even hints of a descending tetrachord, a favorite device of Baroque composers (composers who also sought to capture sentiment above all). Dominant sevenths prevail in the vocal line and are not always resolved, adding to the feeling of melancholy throughout (around 6:11, there is a whole bunch of vocal line singing the flattened seventh of a dominant chord, but it never quite reaches the resolution). The opening veers between a major/dominant chord and its minor resolution, but it doesn't sit on either one long enough to firmly establish where we are. But juxtaposed with this are sections that sound like traditional rock, such as the one at 2:05 starting with 'Who praised their efforts to be free,'  with the guitar hits as the section goes on, only go to back to the more stark major/minor opening. When we finally think we have reached a major key at the end, as Bowie repeats the line 'I want to believe' in various transformations, we suddenly shift over to the martial minor conclusion as he switches unflinchingly to 'I WANT TO LIVE.'

If you have never heard 'Cygnet Committee'--and unless you are a die-hard Bowie fan, it's likely you haven't--I would very much encourage you to give it a shot. This song is quite a contrast to the album's most popular track 'Space Oddity' and its faux-calm sentiment (belying the dramatic subject of its text). There is nothing calm, faux or otherwise, about 'Cygnet Committee.' Instead, it is a delightfully dramatic venture.

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