[7 June 2007]
When he appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in December of 1974, David Bowie, bound in a tight suit of browns and blues and with tangerine hair conservatively cut, described his upcoming album, Young Americans, as a return to basics—an unaffected showpiece for Bowie the Singer/Songwriter, not Bowie the Theatrical Changeling. In fact, Young Americans was yet another pose, a shapeshift that Bowie could slip himself into, even if it didn’t shroud itself in glammed-out space-rock bands from Mars or Orwellian devices of apocalypse drama. Young Americans afforded Bowie the more conventional guise of a blue-eyed Philly soul singer, impeccably dressed and marked by a brittle constitution of late-night serenades and dance-club demands. Bowie could wash off the makeup and shed the elaborate backstories, but that didn’t mean he could expose an underneath that wasn’t at least partly put-on. In the 1970s, Bowie’s “truth” stemmed from his ability to sniff out trends and make the appropriate adaptations to his sound and image. (Indeed, Bowie revamped his sound while on the Diamond Dogs tour, abandoning the glam rock glitz in favor of his Philly soul fascination—a document of that change and of Young Americans’ genesis can be found on the 1974 David Live LP.)
If it weren’t for a few duds (a dreadfully misguided and histrionic rendition of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe”, and “Can You Hear Me”, a ballad too hazy and rudderless for its own good), Young Americans could be one of Bowie’s best albums of the 1970s; its remaining six tracks are characterized by hypnotic plasticness, hard-edged repetition workouts, and vocal performances so sexually charged and breathless that they sound like mic’ed nightcaps to an evening of extracurricular activity and vice. It produced two hit singles that remain staples of classic-rock radio: the upbeat, cynical title track, which boasts an especially sinuous lead vocal that manages to sound sedated and excitable at the same time; and “Fame”, a narcissistic JB-esque vamp co-written with John Lennon and guitarist Carlos Alomar, Bowie’s first single to reach number one on the US pop charts.
Even better is the four-song stretch that makes up the heart of the album. “Win” comes on like a Wings-era McCartney ballad, with saxophones flitting into the wind and the string section a creaking yacht. “Fascination”, co-written with a young Luther Vandross (who serves as one of the album’s background singers), is marked by effected keyboards, guitars, and saxophone that all slink around the groove like toughs around a street corner; Bowie’s voice, caught in perpetual post-midnight, drops into the mass of slithering sheen with oily resolve. “Right” bubbles along on a very minimal but adequate vamp, allowing Bowie plenty of room to bounce his own voice off the unrelenting background singers. And “Somebody up There Likes Me” boasts a panting vocal that rivals the title track’s for carnal contraband of haughtiest pedigree. The expanded “special edition” of Young Americans is a bit gratuitous in many ways: the album is augmented with a few bonus tracks of little consequence, including an inferior, disco-conscious remake of “John, I’m Only Dancing” (titled “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)”); and a bonus DVD includes the aforementioned Dick Cavett Show appearance, along with 5.1 DVD-audio mixes of the entire album by producer Tony Visconti.
Some decry Young Americans for its unapologetic gloss and conformist methodology, but its multi-faceted charms of groove, practicality, and performance argue for a more favorable assessment. (It is commonly understood, however, that the less time we’re subjected to Bowie’s saxophone—a sort of aesthetic centerpiece to this album’s identity—the better.) Bowie would perfect this particular guise, later christened the Thin White Duke, on 1976’s Station to Station, an album that eliminated most of the smooth-jazz sax skronks, upped the art-life ante, and anticipated the detached emotional hollowness of records like Low and Heroes; nonetheless, Young Americans remains (for the majority of its runtime) a worthwhile pop record of persona renovation from a decade of artistic restlessness.
If Young Americans can be found guilty of anything, it’s the palpable populist glitz that foreshadows the airbrushed schlock of Bowie in the 1980s. The Best of David Bowie 1980/1987: Sight & Sound, simply a single-disc issue of the third CD from last year’s three-disc compilation The Platinum Collection which hits the shelves in tandem with the Young Americans special edition, is packaged with a companion DVD of music videos from the same period. The ‘80s were unkind to Bowie, as they were unkind to many people, in terms of both music and fashion—it’s an unfortunate reality that the CD and DVD in this collection aptly demonstrate. With the exception of 1980’s Scary Monsters (from which 1980/1987 culls “Ashes to Ashes”, “Fashion”, “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”, and “Up the Hill Backwards”), Bowie’s albums from this seven-year period are arguably some of his worst (even if albums like Let’s Dance ushered in his international superstardom), and as a result 1980/1987 contains very little of lasting significance beyond the occasional scrap of me-decade kitsch: “Let’s Dance”, “Modern Love”, “China Girl”, and “Blue Jean” are the best-known offenders that have been recycled on many a best-of compilation throughout the years. Points should be given for the inclusion of anti-pop detours like the two Brecht/Weill covers, “Alabama Song” and “Drowned Girl”, the former a UK-only single and the latter taken from a 1982 BBC production of Brecht’s Baal. Still, as 1980/1987 proves, Bowie’s edgy and fascinating search for new self-expression get-ups effectively came to a halt as the ‘70s ended and a voguish new role was divined: that of a pop artist who found infinite fascination with the ephemeral.