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פ.י.מ.פ.

(Analyzing Bowie: Station to Station (album

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1975 was a nightmare year for Bowie. He finally found American success, but everything else was collapsing. His company MainMan dissolved, his manager took him for most of the money he worked so hard to earn, and his relationship with wife Angela was strenuous. Syphoned in his L.A. abode, curtains drawn to hide from the world, he sank into a world of Occultism, black magic and conspiracy theories, convinced that dark forces are about to take over the West. He hardly ate, and consumed frightening doses of cocaine. It is rumored that he almost died at least once during this period.

Musically, he was at a dead end, believing that rock was dead and feeling that his rock-soul-funk mix had exhausted its options. He also started to feel that there was something fake about his attempt to sing like African-Americans, and dubbed his efforts "plastic soul". Luckily, a lifeline to his career was handed to him by movie director Nicholas Roeg, who asked him to star as an alien from another world in his new movie The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie spent the middle part of the year working on the film and his physical and mental condition helped him create a very convincing alien, but the experience only made him feel even more alienated. When he came back from the set, he went deeper into his solitude.

Yet somehow, out of all this, Bowie managed to create a great album, just as groundbreaking and thought provoking and even deeper in emotion than those that preceded it. Putting together all that he had learned musically, adding the electronic music that started to come from Europe, and throwing in all the stuff that was running through his head at the time, Bowie found his inspiration again. The year`s end was dedicated to long cocaine-fueled recording sessions, and by January 1976, Station to Station rolled off the tracks.

And it`s an album that seems to combine everything he has learned. In Bowie`s early albums, the lyrics were always complex, theatrical, dense with images and references and sometimes deeply philosophical. Young Americans showed a transformation, in which the mood of the track was more important and the lyrics were kept simpler. Station to Station begins from the same starting point, as the music was created first and Bowie would haphazardly put together the lyrics to fit them later, but such was his mastery that he could spew off lyrics that are somewhat of a return to the old writing style, being more complex and narrative-driven. On the previous album half the track titles consisted of just one word, displaying their pure focus on a single emotion. Here, only `Stay` continues this trend, while the rest of the tracks have longer titles that display their more composite nature, but on the album sleeve the words are all strung together (`Golden Years` becomes `GOLDENYEARS`, etc.), condensing this complexity into a singularity. It`s as if he is still in the emotional stage, but trying to break out of it with more complex thoughts.

That`s what we hear in the music as well. The album opens with the announcement of "the return of the Thin White Duke", the return of Bowie`s European side which he was trying to forget when he dove into black American music. Bowie explained that the Duke represented the European in him that awoke and started asking himself what he is doing in America and how he can get back home. And it shows in the music. It is still a rock-soul-funk fusion, but while the music of the previous album felt like his soulfulness and funkiness were trying to break out of the rock background, here it is reversed: the background is funk, and he tries to rock his way out of it. The mood is set mainly by the rhythm section, the first appearance of the classic trio of Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar), George Murray (bass) and Dennis Davis (drums), and they lay down some nasty funk. But that`s only the bottom. On top of the funky rhythm, Earl Slick`s lead guitar and Roy Bittan`s piano are distinctly white rock, as if pulling Bowie back from the black world into the white side of pop. But he goes even further, as the European-influenced synthesizers and the punctual sound of most tracks (courtesy of Harry Maslin`s immaculate production) take us back not just into American white rock, but to the kind of musical aestheticism that typified European white music before the age of rock. This unique hybrid of soul, funk, hard rock and electronics opens the field for a lot of sound experimentations, and the tracks are extended to allow them to unfold. It creates an entire new soundscape, one which Bowie would explore further in subsequent albums.

Bowie`s singing is still in the soulful style he adopted in the previous album, and he assumes an even deeper, more sonorous and richly textured vocal. But the influence of the German band Kraftwerk is also felt, as his vocals become more cool and detached, standing halfway between ecstatic soul and the mechanical freeze of the German boys. This detachment allows him to become more reflective, and the lyrics are all about soul searching.

This detachment is expressed on the cover as well. We see Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton, the alien from The Man Who Fell to Earth, entering his spaceship which is supposedly sound proof. It is a picture of a man who withdraws into his inner world, shutting the outside world out and preparing to go back to where he belongs. The stark black and white gives it a feel of European realism.

So what does this detachment and reflection lead to? First of all, he surveys his current miserable condition, and the album mentions all the dark excesses and fears that Bowie was dwelling in at the time: drug abuse (`Station to Station`, `TVC15`, `Stay`), mysticism and goetia (`Station to Station`, `Golden Years`, `Word on a Wing`), and fear of being swallowed by technology (`TVC15`). But the biggest fear seems to be a sense of feebleness. Perhaps due to his near-death experiences, Bowie seems to be sensing the frailty of human life, and tracks like `Word on a Wing` and `Wild is the Wind` convey a sense of being just a creature carried on helplessly by the wind.

On a wider level, he criticizes his lifestyle of the previous five years. During those years, Bowie saw himself as moving from peak to peak, arising each time like a phoenix from the ashes of his old way of life to assume a new and exciting identity. Every album opened with a deion of an identity-crisis of the identity he adopted in the previous album, a crisis that was answered by creating a new identity. Here, it is a criticism of that very way of life of changing identities. Now it doesn`t seem like going from peak to peak but like moving on one plane, like a train going from station to station in a never ending circle. The mention of the circle is key here, because the beginning of this peak-to-peak lifestyle was with `Width of a Circle`, where Bowie described himself as someone who wants to break out of the circle of everyday life. Well, he did that, but now he feels "lost in my circle" again. It all seems pointless and boring now, and worse, it eventually leads you down. In keeping with the religious tone of the album, Bowie said in later interviews that the stations were a reference to the stations Jesus went through before he was crucified. So the last station is a bad place, and he must find a way to break the circle before he gets there.

This perception of his life as moving from station to station will dominate Bowie`s albums from now on, and his challenge will be to fill this way of life with meaning. Here, however, he just wants it to stop. Searching for a different kind of existence, every track in the album displays a yearning for something stable to hold on to. The excitement of a non-committed lifestyle that was expressed in `Changes` has diminished and became the desperation and boredom of `Station to Station`, and now he just wants an anchor, something to keep him safe from the wild wind. We already saw a bit of that in Young Americans, and here it becomes pervasive. The anchor is personified as a woman (except on `Word on a Wing` where it is God) that he can love and develop a meaningful relationship with, but she is merely a symbol for a deeper psychological need.

But there`s something more. Even if he can`t find an anchor, Bowie expresses determination to straighten himself up, to "shape the scheme of things". On the previous album every track ended in ecstasy, as we heard Bowie losing himself in the joy of dancing, love or devotion. But this commitment to ecstasy turned him into a drug addict, and compelled him to rethink his methods. Here, only half the tracks (`Station to Station`, `TVC15` and `Stay`) end in ecstasy, and their lyrics show the understanding that he is losing himself to something that isn`t necessarily good; while the other tracks go into ecstasy but ultimately retain self-control. We see Bowie pulling himself back from complete Dionysian abandonment, trying to impose some order on his life. Here is where the European influence comes in, as European culture provides him with a basis to build a more restrained identity, the very cool Thin White Duke. As a self-proclaimed aristocrat, Bowie can no longer live a life of wild abandon but has to shape and sublimate his behavior, to be his own anchor.

Europe, at the time, was going through a cultural rejuvenation, finally waking up from the Nazi nightmare and beginning to challenge American pop culture with its own brand of pop. For Bowie, who needed recovery most of all, this vibe of a culture in recovery was just what his spirit prescribed. By the time the album was released, Bowie was already making arrangements to cut and leave America and his old lifestyle behind, move to Europe, and start a new life.

Station to Station
Golden Years
Word on a Wing
TVC15
Stay
Wild is the Wind

In later years, Bowie said that he was so drug addled at the time that he doesn`t even remember recording the album and that he listens to it as if it is an album that was recorded by another artist. That doesn`t mean that he disowns it. On the contrary, Station to Station has proven to be not only one of Bowie`s most highly acclaimed albums, but also the most performance-oriented one. Allowing your body to dance to the funky rhythms, your soul to wail with the rocking guitars and your heart to be taken by the soulful vocals, all the tracks are perfect performance pieces and were performed many times over the years. The songs that once expressed deep distress became songs of celebration, and rereleases came with a more cheerful cover that dispensed with the black-and-white and brought back the colors. With hindsight, it is also the beginning of Bowie`s experimental electronic phase, the launching pad for his Berlin triptych. This album has no weaknesses. Solid and brilliant all the way through, it is yet another Bowie masterpiece.

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