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Analyzing Bowie: Black Country Rock

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Pack a pack horse up and rest up here on
Black Country Rock
You never know, you might find it here on
Black Country Rock

In the Space Oddity album, we saw Bowie working to distinguish himself from the crowd, to find ways to set himself apart both from mainstream culture and from the counter-culture. But he didn't break away altogether: the songs were placed within urban settings, on the fringes of society, but still part of it. When he spoke of someone who left society altogether, he used a character: Major Tom who left Earth and went into space, or the wild eyed boy who left his village and went to live up the mountain. But when we come to The Man Who Sold the World, we find a different approach. Here, it is Bowie himself who is going up the mountain, and he's packing a horse, which means he's going to stay there for a while until he finds answers. The songs on this album will go one step further than the previous one and look for alternative forms of existence, higher up than the boring life in our bourgeois world. On this track he is inviting us to join him there, up on his metaphoric mountain. You never know, you might find it here – find your truth, the way of life that will bring you joy.

Some say the view is crazy
But you may adopt another point of view
So if it's much too hazy
You can leave my friend and me with fond adieu

This place is not for everyone. Some say that there's nothing to see in these weird other places that we are going to explore, that they are nothing but incoherent haze. But those who open themselves to the experience and are able to endure it might discover a new point of view on life, and a better way to live it.

Of course, there's nothing new about this metaphor. In literature, the act of leaving society and going up a mountain is often used to symbolize a search for a higher form of existence. Other songs on the album leave no doubt that Bowie was reading Nietzsche, whose famous novel Thus Spake Zarathustra tells of a prophet who lived in solitude up a mountain for ten years and then came down to preach his new gospel. Like Nietzsche, Bowie will not literally go up a mountain, but make his voyage on the mountains of the mind and spirit.

Finally, the record's title suggests another layer. "Country rock" was a musical genre that combined country and rock, and was relatively new at the time (started 1968). "Country" symbolized going out on the prairie, which fit very well with the Hippie ideal of returning to nature, but in emulating the country spirit rock music also absorbed more traditional American values and started down the road to conformity. Bowie isn't ready to conform just yet. He will also "go out on the country" in search of his nature, but his country is "black country", a name that designates a region in the West Midlands of England, so called because of its black earth caused by the early industrialization of the place. Bowie, then, is not returning to nature, but rather turning to a land that is even more artificial. Furthermore, the word "black" may hint at his fascination with the black arts, which is also prevalent in this album. That puts him closer to heavy metal, another form of rock music that was beginning to fledge at the time and drew a lot from black magic, but Bowie doesn't align himself with heavy metal any more than he does with country rock. "Black Country Rock" is his own mountain, his own unique style, combining the power of metal guitars and the industrial sounds of the synthesizer, and lyrics that take us into obscure and dark regions. This track serves mainly as a showcase to it, while inviting us along for the ride.

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