Saturday, February 20, 2016

YEAR OF BOWIE: The Man Who Sold the World (1970)

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. 

This post is, by my estimation, approximately three weeks overdue, in that I intended to sit down and write it, but never found the time. Now some pretty major events did take place during those three weeks, so we could chalk it up to a busy schedule and not enough hours in the day. But I think the real reason that I hadn't made the time to write up this album is that I wasn't quite ready to let this album go. I'm still not. But the Year of Bowie must move forward, or it will be the More Than A Year of Bowie! So I offer my thoughts, even though they may still be incomplete.

Unlike the previous posts in this series, this was an album that I had heard before. About a year ago, I went through a phase of listening to (the song) 'The Man Who Sold the World' approximately a dozen or more times a day, usually on repeat. In this vein, I decided to listen to the album with what were impossibly high hopes--I think I wanted an entire album of songs like 'The Man Who Sold the World', which is kind of like saying that you're annoyed not every movement of a Beethoven symphony is as good as your favorite. Needless to say, I was disappointed. A bunch of it sounded vaguely Spinal-Tap-esque, what with the flutes and everything, and in general it had the ambiance of Led Zeppelin. This is an unfair criticism to level as it appeared right around the same time, so unsurprisingly it sounded of that time. In my initial re-listening, I wasn't quite so disappointed in it (I guess now I knew what was coming). In fact, I found that it had gradually seeped into my mind and reassessed my initial position.

The way I discovered it had seeped in my head was that I woke up one Saturday morning with the sound of two guitars playing through a chord progression on downbeats of some song and was unable to place it. Turns out, it was 'All the Madmen,' which upon re-listening is a great song, even in spite of its Spinal-Tap-esque flutes. That guitar bit right after the chorus is fantastic. The chords aren't particularly complex (iii - V7 - I - vi), except that they don't really resolve the way you think they will--the third of the chord in the V7 is left hanging, descending down to the 5 in the tonic chord that follows--and also those chord numbers are not really how the chords relate to the rest of the song as we have modulated. This is great, as we think for a minute that we have reached some kind of stability, but really the entire harmonic structure is off the whole time. The topic of this song was Bowie's half-brother Terry Burns, who was institutionalized at the time for mental health problems; Bowie spoke about this at some length in later interviews. But if you didn't know that, you would likely interpret this song as referring to some kind of alter-Bowie, one who felt he belonged more to the madmen than the sad men who are free.

This theme of the split personality is a crucial one on this album and one that drives (the song) 'The Man Who Sold the World.' The lyrics make the divide perfectly clear, as Bowie meets his doppelgänger on the stair and the dialogue shifts back and forth between them. Even the song reflects this dual personality, starting unquestionably in a minor key, then seemingly resolving it in the chorus, only to bring in a deceptive cadence and resume right back in the minor (similar trick to 'All the Madmen'). What is most haunting is the ostinato that starts the song and which returns at numerous points, the simple guitar riff that is inescapable. There were moments where it disappeared, only to return, much like the Man Who Sold the World. But he can never die, and the song ends by acknowledging the eternity of this duality: we hear the ostinato in the guitar and Bowie singing a wordless vocal line, which grows into four separate vocal lines by the end, layered over top of each other. As the song fades out, it gives the impression that it could go on forever, as the chords never fully resolve--there is mostly the minor in which the song opened, but for a brief two-chord progression, there was almost a landing in major. Both 'men' are still there. Perhaps the growing number of vocal lines suggests there are even more 'men' waiting. The many personas that Bowie would take on later seem foreshadowed here, as though they would eventually split into alter egos and not just facets of one person.

Sidenote: the Nirvana cover is all well and good, but by omitting the layering of the voices in the same way during the final bit, it misses out on this crucial facet of the song. Sure, it's live, but there could have been a way. For that reason, I feel that it is inferior. And that is where I am leaving this discussion. Feel free to join the holy wars on YouTube about this topic. The fact that the band initially messes up the start is a testament to the fact that the behavior of the chords in this song is unexpected.

'The Man Who Sold the World' (the album) was unexpectedly with me over the past month or so, as I listened to it in the car, at work, and even when I didn't need to in preparing this post. Other songs got my attention too, like 'Savior Machine,' with that great opening. I am not ready to be done with it, and perhaps I won't ever quite get there. This post ventures more closely to the types of traditional music analysis found in musical scholarship, and I think this parallel reflects the fact that Bowie's songs are constructed in the same tradition with the same interplay between text and music. Just as I could never quite grasp all that is in a Schumann Lied, I will never be quite done with some of those by Bowie.

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