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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Soul Love

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In 'Five Years', the opening track, Bowie told us that we have no future to look forward to. This, as we've seen, causes the modern society to crumble, because it kills the idea that holds it together, the idea that we are working towards the creation of a future utopia. The underlying belief of modern thought is that the human mind can devise a perfect system, which will bring happiness to all humankind. But if the mind can no longer see any future, it loses its direction, loses all meaning for existence, loses any criteria to determine good from bad. What can save us from this calamity?

The traditional answer is: LOVE. There were always those who contended that the human mind is incapable of finding the answers we seek, and that the key to happiness lies rather in the heart. The human capacity to love, they say, is the road to our salvation, and if we focus our energies on spreading love, we will eventually form a human society that lives in eternal happiness and harmony. With 'Soul Love', Bowie makes the effort to go down that road, to see if love can provide a solution.

What the singer in 'Soul Love' is trying to do is to determine the nature of love. He looks at lovers, and attempts to figure out what caused their love. If he can decipher the secret of love, he might be able to create a loving existence for himself and maybe even teach it to others, to create a harmonic world. What, then, is the nature of love?

Stone love - she kneels before the grave
A brave son - who gave his life to save the slogan
That hovers between the headstone and her eyes
For they penetrate her grieving

The first set of lovers that he examines does indeed reveal to him something about the nature of love, although it is something that isn't very reassuring: love dies. It is, of course, not the first time we meet this theme in Bowie's early work, nor indeed the last. We are reminded of 'An Occasional Dream', where the hero-lover, after one hundred days of happiness that he thought would last forever, is left with nothing but a photograph of his lost love. This may be what we have here as well, if we choose to understand this verse metaphorically: love has turned to stone, and so the lover is remained with nothing to look at but the headstone on the grave of her relationship. But it can also be taken literally, and in that case it is probably another jibe at the counter-culture of the sixties, a movement that believed it can create a new world based on love. Here we are reminded of 'Cygnet Committee', where a movement that pretended to carry the "flag of love" had turned oppressive and murderous and its ideals became empty slogans. The "brave son" could be someone who fought for these slogans, believing he is creating a better world, but all that happened was that he died along with the love message he gave his life for, leaving his actual love with nothing but a headstone to grieve on. 

New love - a boy and girl they talking
New words - that only they can share in
New words - a love so strong it tears their hearts
To sleep - through the fleeting hours of morning

His gaze now turns to lovers who are alive, and in the morning of their love. But if he wants to find the secret of love, the common denominator in all loves, it becomes clear that he cannot do that: every love is unique, every pair of lovers live in a world of their own, speaking in words that only they can share. He does acknowledge that it is a powerful and magnificent thing, but there is also great sadness attached to it. The couple he describes is not like the couple in 'An Occasional Dream', who wasted the short time of their love in dreams of the future – this couple is fully aware that their love is fleeting, and that they have to make the most of every minute of it. They want to stay awake, to experience every moment of this morning, because they know that it will soon turn to evening, and then die.

Love is careless in its choosing
Sweeping over cross a baby
Love descends on those defenseless
Idiot love will spark the fusion
Inspirations have I none - just to touch the flaming dove
All I have is my love of love - and love is not loving

The chorus presents the conclusion: he cannot find the secret of love. You do not choose love, love chooses you, and there is no law behind it. It is purely coincidental, and any idiot can suddenly and unexpectedly fall in love, while he, the smart one who consciously seeks love, remains loveless. All that his consciousness can achieve is to love the concept of love, but that is an analytical sort of love, not something that can fill your heart. The only idea he can come up with to finding true love is touching the "flaming dove", which, I suppose, is an image that signifies the holy-spirit. But the holy-spirit is not something that is so easy to touch.

What we get from all this is that love cannot be the basis for any lasting solution. Love is not an eternal, universal and stable thing, but rather fortuitous, personal and temporal. It is not some ideal that floats in the heavens somewhere, but rather something that comes from a spark between two living humans and lasts only as long as their personalities still produce this spark. If you try to capture it in stable concepts, to turn it into some universal and eternal ideology, it will immediately turn to stone.

Soul love - the priest that tastes the word and
Told of love - and how my God on high is
All love - though reaching up my loneliness evolves
By the blindness that surrounds him

Well, there are of course those who disagree with his conclusions. Christianity claims that there is a key to gaining everlasting love, and that key is faith in God. Through faith, you become part of a being that is all love and find eternal happiness. That is what the priest tells us, but Bowie, in 'God Knows I'm Good', already told us a different story: God has forsaken us, he is blind to our misery, and when we call on him he never answers. The same applies here: when the singer tries to reach God, to be part of that all-embracing love, he finds nothing but emptiness and blindness, and this discrepancy only makes him feel even more loveless and lonely.

Love, then, turns out to be another dead end. After 'Five Years' denied the possibility that an eternal solution could be found through the mind, 'Soul Love' denies the possibility that it could be found through the heart. The human race seems to have been rendered incapable of finding any meaning to life, and the heavens remain silent as well, refusing to lend a hand. And so, bereft of any solutions, fresh out of inspirations, struck dumb by reality, our narrator just la-la-las his way to the end of the track, idly passing the time. And then, suddenly, the heavens aren't silent any more.

'Soul Love' was performed in the 1978 Stage tour, where it received a funkier treatment. The same arrangement, but with a fuller sound, reappeared on the first leg of the 1983 Serious Moonlight tour, where it blended perfectly with the Let's Dance material. Sadly, we have only audio from the 83 performance.

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