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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Lodger

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Lodger is considered to be the last part of the Berlin trilogy (or as Bowie called it, the Berlin triptych), the closing chapter of Bowie`s Berlin episode that started with Low and continued with "Heroes". Many have pointed out that this title is misleading, since Low was mostly created in France while all of Lodger was made in Switzerland. But the fact is that Bowie himself sees this as a trilogy, and with good reasons. The most obvious reason is of course that all three were collaborations with Brian Eno, combining Bowie`s unique style with Eno`s far-out ideas. But more importantly, Lodger marks the conclusion of a spiritual journey, the completion of a metamorphosis in which Berlin acted as his cocoon. Before we see what new colors his butterfly wings now have, let`s remind ourselves why he entered the cocoon in the first place.

When Bowie began to find his artistic voice in the early seventies, his art was preoccupied with trying to solve several problems. One problem was his wish to transcend the boredom of mundane life and live a heroic and exciting existence, a wish that contrasted with his realization that such a life is short lived and every hero eventually falls into an existence that is worse than what he started from. His solution was a lifestyle of constant changes, in which he would ditch his former heroic identity once it began to fall and create himself anew as a totally different heroic identity. This lifestyle of identity-changes was fun for a while and made for a very exciting existence, but by the middle of the decade it started to feel monotonous, plus he began to feel that it made him completely lose grasp of who he was. His escape to Berlin was partly aimed at escaping from this lifestyle of constant changing, slowing down the pace and finding a more solid basis to build an identity around.

Another problem was his wish to experience love, which contrasted with his belief that love too is short-lived and ends in breakup and pain. His lifestyle of changes aimed at solving this problem as well, as every new identity would bring him together with a community of like-minded individuals with whom he could experience love for a while before moving to another loving community. That was the theory, but in practice Bowie`s records of the time document an increasing feeling of loneliness and a wish for a more stable relationship.

Finally, he had moral and political fears. Bowie always had a rather pessimistic outlook on human nature, believing that most people are sheep that do not want freedom but want to serve. The 1970s Western mind still believed in the upcoming revolution, a revolution that will fix society once and for all and bring a perfect world. Bowie, on the other hand, did not believe in utopia and thought that this utopian delusion is actually one of the things that would help evil prevail. He feared that his new exciting ideas could be dangerous in that they could be used by a charismatic person to rally the masses and become a dictator. His lifestyle of changes was designed to escape any idea before it became too powerful and dangerous, but in time he realized that he was planting these dangerous ideas in society while at the same time weakening its defenses through his subversion of all the norms. He was scared that he was aiding and abetting the rise of the next totalitarian regime, and escaped to Berlin, formerly the capital of the worst totalitarian regime ever, to figure it all out.

Berlin had a healing effect on Bowie. First and foremost, he found the value of everyday life, the enjoyment of living a simple existence. In the ambientic side B of Low, after side A described the crisis that drove him to Berlin, we can hear him immersing himself in city life, dissolving into the surroundings rather than trying to stand above everything. And Lust for Life, the album he made with Iggy Pop, showed him embracing life and the enjoyment of living as part of human society. He realized that you don`t have to be a larger-than-life hero to endow your life with meaning. You can be perfectly happy just living.

This realization carried into his next album, but here he also found the way to be heroic again. "Heroes" outlines a new philosophy of life, reinstating heroism through changing the traditional meaning of the word "hero". Bowie`s heroes now were the simple folk who stand up for their right to live a normal life and associate with whomever they want to associate, in the face of a world that tries to deny it from them for ideological reasons. And because there`ll never be a utopia, because evil is so strong that it will never go away, these heroes will always have something to fight for, new walls to break. And through this process of always standing up to evil, you can also keep on changing and regenerating. With these realizations, Bowie solved his spiritual problem, and the recording of the album was done in a jovial mood. But since he wanted to represent the spiritual journey from darkness to light, "Heroes" is mostly a dark album and the joy comes through only at the end of the title track and in just a few more spots. In Lodger, however, there is no more drama. The merry spirit permeates the entire album and presents the healthy and happy man that has emerged out of the Berlin experience.

It is presented in the opening track, whose title `Fantastic Voyage` shows that Bowie now treats life as a fantastic voyage that should be travelled all the way through. This contrasts with the "living on the edge" mentality of his previous albums, and raises the ire of the angel of death who drops in for a visit in `Look Back in Anger` to protest the fact that Bowie no longer lives the kind of life that would ensure their imminent rendezvous. But Bowie laughs at his expense, giddy about the thought of living many more years. 'Yassasin', a Turkish toast that means "long live", shows what he wishes for now. And `Boys Keep Swinging` is a celebration of reinvigorated youth.

`Fantastic Voyage` presents another theme of the album: travel. It is a reaffirmation of the ch-ch-ch-changes lifestyle, but it is also different. In the past, Bowie did not treat himself as someone with a past. Every character he assumed existed on its own, separate from past characters. `Station to Station` was the first time he started to look at himself as a man that goes through stages which those characters represent, but there the voyage was described as meaningless. Now, after `"Heroes"` created new ethics in which the changes were given a new meaning, he embraces it once again as a voyage that is fantastic. In `Move On` Bowie spells it out: he is a man who moves from place to place, from culture to culture, and through these encounters enriches his soul. In this track and more so in `Red Sails`, Bowie likens himself to a sailor, never rooted in one place. And his enthusiasm to meet other cultures is also apparent in his attempt to emulate music from them, like Turkish music for `Yassasin` and African music for `African Night Flight`.

`African Night Flight` also reflects on the dangerous sides of this travelling lifestyle, but the album makes it clear that life would be worse if he didn`t live that way. `Repetition` shows what happens when your life is stuck in a routine, telling the story of a man who beats his wife because he is so sick of his life. There used to be a time when Bowie thought a regular human life would inevitably lead to this boredom and depression, and his 1976-77 electronic music hinted that he was afraid he was falling into this type of repetitive routine. But then he realized that life can be a fantastic voyage, and `Repetition` serves merely as a warning of what could happen if you didn`t embrace the ethics he presented in `"Heroes"`. It is the penultimate track of the album, followed by `Red Money` that rehashes the riff of `Sister Midnight`, his most repetitive and robotic number. But here he adds some variations to the repetitive riff, as if to show that he has found a way to break out of the routine and live the kind of life that ensures happiness.

The album cover finds another clever way to deliver this message. We see Bowie lying on a bathroom floor, body twisted as if he fell from up high. His right hand is bandaged, which gives us a clue as to what this image is referencing. In Roman Polanski`s 1976 movie The Tenant, the hero is buying an apartment in a condo that seems nice at first but then turns into a nightmarish place. He slowly goes through a physical and mental degradation, including injuring his hand and having to bandage it, and ends up jumping from a second floor window and crashing in much the same way Bowie looks on the cover. The horror is completed when the hero realizes that his existence is an endless loop, and he will forever have to relive the same nightmare. This is arguably the most chilling piece of life-as-horrible-repetition ever put on celluloid, and the movie seems to suggest that this is what human existence really is. But Bowie laughs at Polanski`s dark fatalism. The image on the cover is obviously comical, and looks quite silly. Furthermore, it is a postcard, as if suggesting that this is just one place he`s been in within the fantastic voyage that is human existence. While Polanski sees life as one small apartment where a man is a tenant that cannot leave, Bowie sees life as full of endless apartments where you can be a lodger for a while and then move on to another apartment. Some of those places might be bad and you will come crashing down, but you can just leave them behind, dust your clothes off and start anew in a different place.

Another side of the `"Heroes"` ethics is caring about other people`s plight. `"Heroes"` emphasized the "we", the fact that a man is not an island but finds his happiness when bonding with others. And the addition of bonding with people from different cultures, those who are on the other side of the wall, means that you also care about them. `Fantastic Voyage` states Bowie`s determination to use his art to highlight human sufferings and wrongs, shove them in our face so we cannot remain indifferent to them. A couple of tracks on the album already live up to this resolution, like `Yassassin` that describes some of the problems Turkish immigrants encounter in Europe, and `Repetition` that turns the spotlight towards the horrors of domestic violence. Bowie will continue to do so in albums to come.

It is, in other words, a more mature Bowie, a Bowie that takes responsibility over his life and art. The closing lines of the closing track `Red Money` talk about the need to accept responsibility, while other tracks look at youth culture from a critical adult perspective: `D.J.` seems to reflect the emptiness of the disco lifestyle, while `Boys Keep Swinging` satirizes the machismo and chauvinism of rock music. Bowie, it seems, has finally made his way out of the maelstrom and anxiety of youth.

A big part of it is that he finally finds a solid core to build his identity around. Bowie`s previous identity switches were total, negating everything that came before them. Every album stood on its own, as if he was a different person from what he was before. Now that he learned to love his everyday persona, it becomes his anchor and something that shall remain grounded throughout his future changes. In `D.J.`, which can be perceived as an acronym for his real, "everyday" name David Jones, he announces "I am what I play": he will still assume characters, but he will merely play them, not become them. For the first time, Bowie opens up to his past and accepts it as part of himself, and the album contains some quotes from previous stages: `Red Money` rehashes the riff of `Sister Midnight`, `Move On` loops `All the Young Dudes` in reverse, `Boys Keep Swinging` uses the soundscape of `"Heroes"`. While the Angel of Death is looking back in anger, Bowie now sees the way he traveled to get to this point as a fantastic voyage.

The problem with all this is that it takes away the drama from Bowie`s music. Each of his previous albums was a struggle to overcome a crisis, a struggle that infused the music with immense pain, power and glory. In Lodger, the mood is blithe and content from start to finish, sung by a man who sounds like he overcame all his demons. From the silly cover to the tomfoolery of `Boys Keep Swinging` (where the band members switch instruments and play like novices), Bowie seems intent on deconstructing the seriousness of the Berlin period. It is also the least cohesive of his seventies albums, as every track has its own style and most of them sound like theatre pieces in which he plays different characters. Lodger does not take you on a spiritual voyage, does not sound like a life-saving experience. It`s mostly fun, but it doesn`t have the power of Bowie`s previous albums.

Another thing that is lacking is the alien, which was always so important for Bowie`s art. In his past albums he would always fuse his music with a cultural alien, to create a novel style for the album. Here there is no alien, so Bowie tries to achieve the novelty with musical experimentalism, relying on Eno`s methods. Berlin was not just a place to hide; it was also an artistic hub that recharged Bowie`s musical batteries. In the first two albums of the Berlin trilogy he and Eno created a new musical language, and they attempted to do the same for Lodger. But since this album is more diverse, here every track gets a different approach and Eno has the chance to try out all his wacky ideas. In `Red Sails` Eno employs what he learned from working with German electronic bands, the chilling minimalism of `Repetition` sounds a lot like things he was doing with Talking Heads at the time, while `African Night Flight` is a promo for the albums he would later create with David Byrne. Bowie`s experimentalism is prevalent mainly in the combination of ethnic sounds with rock in `Yassassin`, one of several similar fusions he`s done in that period. It should also be noted that with this album he started his experimentation with video art and on the way practically invented the video-clip.

In the band we once again find the trusted rhythm section of Alomar-Davis-Murray, the trio that came together in Bowie`s soul period when he was writing positive and life-affirming songs like `Win` and `Right`. Back then he was trying to manufacture happiness to battle his sadness, but on this album he is truly happy and the funk they create helps to convey this mood. Eno`s attempts to take them out of their comfort zone prevents them from creating the grooves they were famous for, but they are so good that in most tracks they still manage to hit a groove and generate ecstasy. Eno and Visconti once again play some instruments, providing continuity from the previous albums, but there are also four new additions to the lineup. Adrian Belew was a perfect find for Bowie, a guitarist who could take the techno-electric foundations laid by Slick, Gardiner and Fripp in Bowie`s previous albums and build on them to get to new places. Simon House on electric violin adds just the amount of exotica that the album needs, while Sean Mayes on piano and Roger Powell on synthesizer contribute their touches. Together, they experimented with sound and time, and every track is a little gem of weirdness and beauty.

Lodger, then, is an album of resolve. Right before the end of the seventies, Bowie manages to present solutions to most of the problems he was grappling with throughout the decade. Specifically, he managed to anchor his lifestyle of changes in ethics that ensured he could continue to change and be happy forever and also keep fighting for what is good and right. Only one problem remained defiant. Bowie still couldn`t answer the question of how personal love could triumph, how you could have a relationship that will survive through the changes. The album may be happy overall, but several tracks still convey loneliness and none of them shows love. There`s a belief that there`s a girl waiting for him out there, calling for him, but he does not know how to reach her. This problem will have to wait for the next decade to find its resolution.

Fantastic Voyage
African Night Flight
Move On
Yassassin
Red Sails
D.J.
Look Back in Anger
Boys Keep Swinging
Repetition
Red Money

Lodger is the least revered of Bowie`s seventies studio album (excluding the covers album Pin Ups). The lack of pain, drama and struggle make it weaker, the musicians who played on it grumbled that having to adhere to Brian Eno`s bizarre directions prevented them from creating something truly groovy, and even though Bowie tried to cover for all of that with some groundbreaking musical ideas, both he and Eno came out of the project feeling that they didn`t quite manage to create what they had in mind. According to Eno, "it started off extremely promising and quite revolutionary and it didn`t seem to quite end that way". He believes that they compromised, didn`t go all the way. So without incredible drama, groove or art, the album failed to amaze and received a lukewarm reaction from the critics.

Over the years, however, its stature grew. Lodger is a rare and exotic bird, and many have fallen for its charms. Those artists that are inspired by the new wave music of the late seventies and early eighties regard Lodger as a point of reference, and its rank among Bowie`s albums seems to be growing with every year. As rock becomes less of a social phenomenon and more of a respectable musical style, Bowie's Berlin tryptich moves to the fore and gains influence. The jury is still out on the question whether Lodger is yet another Bowie masterpiece. Personally I always found it weaker than his other seventies albums, but I too have warmed up to it over the years. And so have many others. History`s final verdict, it seems, might surprise us all.

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