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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Fantastic Voyage

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The opening track of Lodger, the album that became known as the last in the Berlin trilogy (or "Berlin triptych", as Bowie once called it), shows us what a long way Bowie came in the two-and-a-half years that spanned these three albums. In 'Always Crashing in the Same Car' Bowie described his life as going round and round in circles until the inevitable crash, and then repeating it again and again. He needed to find an answer that would give his life direction and meaning, and the album Low shows him withdrawing into his mind in order to find that answer. By the time he produced Lust for Life for Iggy Pop he was already halfway there, and the track 'The Passenger' describes life as one long magical car ride, looking at the world with clear eyes and seeing all its horrors but also all its beauty. And the title track of "Heroes" provides the ethics to go with it: life should be lived as a constant fight to overcome the walls that people build between themselves, and this fight ensures that you will always have a new meaningful direction to go to. The album closes with 'The Secret Life of Arabia', which celebrates the '"Heroes"' ethics as one that can take us over cultural walls to explore other civilizations and lands.

Now, at the beginning of the next album, Bowie picks up where the previous album left off, describing life as one fantastic voyage. His tone in no longer tragic and distressed but rather content, warm and sensitive, and the music sheaths it with romantic magnificence. "You touch me, I hear the sound of mandolins" he once sang in 'Wild is the Wind', as he was aching for the ability to connect to other people in a meaningful way again. Well, now he has found the way, and yes, we hear mandolins: nine mandolins, in fact, played quietly and joining Sean Mayes' piano to create a delicate and lush sound. It all sounds very optimistic, but the lyrics, as we have come to expect from Bowie, are more dubious.

In the event that this fantastic voyage
Should turn to erosion and we never get old
Remember it's true, dignity is valuable
But our lives are valuable too

The opening verse seems to be addressing the people of the future. Bowie is still in the frame of mind of 'Five Years', the frame of mind that believes our civilization is headed for self-destruction, but now he seems to also believe that some will survive this apocalypse and will build a new human civilization. To them, he delivers what he has learned during the five years that came after 'Five Years': human life is valuable, as valuable as anything else. In the past he was one of those who belittled regular existence and looked for some other kind of existence, but now he wishes to tell the coming civilizations that whatever lofty ideas they have cannot come at the expense of human life.

We're learning to live with somebody's depression
And I don't want to live with somebody's depression
We'll get by, I suppose

The sixties youth wanted to fix the world, to create a utopic world where there is no oppression, suppression or depression. Bowie, in '"Heroes"', changed the ethics: we accept that there will always be oppression, but that does not depress us because we realize that this will mean that there will always be something to fight against and be heroes. However, accepting the world as it is means that we must learn to accept that there will always be oppressed and depressed people, and Bowie finds it hard to accept this thought. He tries to console himself that "we'll get by", but he still sounds plagued by doubt.

It's a very modern world, but nobody's perfect
It's a moving world, but that's no reason
To shoot some of those missiles
Think of us as fatherless scum
It won't be forgotten
'Cause we'll never say anything nice again, will we?

Modernity did not bring perfection. Life has been improved in many ways thanks to modern technology and thought, but in other ways it is worse. Some powerful figures use the modern ideas of advancement to claim that in order to move the world forward and make it better they have the right to kill many people and treat them as rubble. Bowie posits himself in opposition to these people. They are the ones he is going to fight.

And the wrong words make you listen
In this criminal world
Remember it's true, loyalty is valuable
But our lives are valuable too

In this imperfect world, you are required to listen and be loyal to ideas and ideals that aren't the absolute truth. Since these partial truths are all we have, Bowie says it is alright to be loyal to them, but reminds us of the border which we mustn't traverse: we must never use them to devalue human life.

We're learning to live with somebody's depression
And I don't want to live with somebody's depression
We'll get by I suppose
But any sudden movement I've got to write it down
They wipe out an entire race and I've got to write it down
But I'm still getting educated but I've got to write it down
And it won't be forgotten
'Cause I'll never say anything nice again, how can I?

This is Bowie's resolution: he is going to be positive towards life and treat it as a fantastic voyage that should be travelled all the way through, and at the same time he is going to stand against anyone who tries to deny someone's right to have this fantastic voyage. He is not going to play nice and give us records that make us feel good about ourselves. He is going to bear witness through his songs to all the good and the bad of our times, and make sure that none of it will be forgotten. This way, even if our civilization destroys itself, its lessons will remain. At the cusp of a new decade, Bowie poses a new artistic manifesto.

This beautiful song lay forgotten for many years, but later in life, after many more fantastic years on Earth, Bowie gave it its due.

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