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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Modern Love

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As we come to the opening track of Bowie's fifteenth studio album, we already know what to expect: an exposition track, which introduces the main crisis and problems the album will deal with. So, what is the crisis this time?

The title already gives us a clue. Love has always been one of the main themes in Bowie's work, and it appeared in two main forms: first, the love between two individuals; second, love for humanity, a wish for it to come together in peace. Bowie's art expressed the yearning for both these forms of love, but it also showed that they were hopeless: love for another person is always temporary and eventually dies, while any attempt to bring about a utopian world of love ends in catastrophe. Eventually, Bowie managed to find a solution to the second problem: even though the world will never come together we can still fight in the name of our love for humanity, and in this way we can be heroes for ever and ever. But as for the first kind of love, the love between two individuals, that remains a problem that he did not solve. He is still seeking that love. Can it be found in this modern world of ours?

I know when to go out
And when to stay in
Get things done

The record starts with a spoken word part in which Bowie asserts he has control over his life. This is a continuation of what we heard in his last two albums, where we witnessed Bowie putting his life in order. However, as we shall see, there is one thing that still drives him into disarray.

I catch a paper boy
But things don't really change
I'm standing in the wind
But I never wave bye-bye
But I try
I try

Bowie begins by talking about the second kind of love we mentioned: the one that cares about the world and wants it to be better. He checks out the news and finds that nothing changes and the world remains as bad as it was, yet he refuses to give up and wave goodbye to his care for it. He continues to try to change it for the better.

There's no sign of life
It's just the power to charm
I'm lying in the rain
But I never wave bye-bye
But I try
I try

"I'll kiss you in the rain" sang Bowie in 'Blackout', at the moment in the record when the singer was breaking up with his lover and pretending that he doesn't care much about it. But he was lying: he still wants love. In 'Wild is the Wind' he expressed his need for a love that lasts, while knowing that love is fragile like a leaf in the wind. Some years have passed since these two records, but we find that Bowie is still standing in the wind and the rain, still seeing eternal love as an illusion. He suggests that what we call "love" is nothing but the power to charm, as if trying to convince himself it is not worth the effort, but his feelings tell him otherwise. He simply cannot bring himself to wave bye-bye to love, cannot stop believing in it, can't stop trying.

Never gonna fall for
Modern Love - walks beside me
Modern Love - walks on by
Modern Love - gets me to the Church on Time

Bowie promises himself he's never gonna fall for it again, for that hope of everlasting love. Your lover will walk beside you for a while, but then she will walk on by, just like in that classic Burt Bacharach break-up song. Alternatively, it also gets him to the church, in a paraphrase on 'Get Me to the Church on Time', a song from the musical My Fair Lady that is about marriage done out of a sense of duty and not out of love. Either way, it is not the ideal he is looking for.

Church on Time - terrifies me
Church on Time - makes me party
Church on Time - puts my trust in God and Man

When he gets to the Church, however, he finds a different kind of love there, the love between Man and his God. But the Church itself terrifies him, and eventually he skips its dogmatic teaching and escapes to a simpler belief, one that perceives the relationship between God and Humanity not as one of subservience but as one of a loving unity.

God and Man - no confessions
God and Man - no religion
God and Man - don't believe
In Modern Love

It seems that he is quite happy with this kind of faith that does not adhere to any religious dogma. Alas, this faith in God and Man drives him right back towards believing in loving another individual, and so the circle begins again.

And so, Bowie is right back in the situation he described in 'Station to Station', where he moves from one station to another in a never ending circle. How does he plan to escape the circle this time? The answer is simple: he doesn't. He is going to embrace the circle, find love and happiness in each one of the stations and then move to the next station. How do we know this? Because that's what the music says. The chords portray the circular motion in that they keep the same cyclical order throughout the record, and the music turns the cycle into a groovy, danceable romp. It is one of the most fun Bowie records ever, with the drums, piano and saxophone pounding some old fashioned rock'n'roll and the back-and-forth vocals driving each other into ecstasy. Maybe we can't find eternal love, but we can still have fun.

Like previous exposition tracks, then, 'Modern Love' does not just portray the problem but also hints at a solution. The solution that Bowie is offering us this time is: if we are stuck in this cyclical reality, let's not get lost in the circle. Rather, let's find a way to enjoy every station, and turn the cyclical laws that rule our existence into an ecstatic, joyful, fun affair. In short, let's dance.

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