Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: Young Americans, 1975
Prior Level of Acquaintance: High
Three-Word Review: Lovely, pleasant, meh
I enjoy Young Americans. It grew on me a bit on this revisit. But frankly it’s kind of an unfave.
Don’t get me wrong: I like soul music, mostly from, Stax, Atlantic, and/or the 1960s. This smooth, silvery, dispassionate (mostly) sort of thing just doesn’t get me out on the floor. Maybe someday I’ll convert. Till then, meh.
Meh with one ‘ick.’ Life improved a lot when I started letting myself hit the ‘next track’ button on Bowie’s cover of ‘Across the Universe.’ If there are any other performances of his I truly hate, I haven’t encountered them yet, but this one will do to be going on with. It’s either a parody, or having no idea what the song is about, or I don’t know what, but give me the good old Beatles jai guru deva-ing anytime.
Here’s what I do like about Young Americans: As pop-music albums go, it was made about five minutes after Diamond Dogs, and it’s SO DIFFERENT. It’s an utter cliche to point out what a chameleon Bowie was – I believe he himself lightly mocked the term in multiple interviews – but sometimes things are cliches cause they’re just so on point. It’s hard to believe it’s the same guy from one album to the next, and not just because he lost a third of his body weight during those five minutes.
And I don’t just mean stylistically different. Five minutes before, this guy was a shrieking rock tenor. Now here he is with this throbbing baritone and whispery falsetto, pretty much anything other than shrieking tenor. It’s even more striking when you learn (as I just did) that most of the Young American tracks were sung live with the band. Obviously they were then expertly mixed, but there’s no synth voice here (except on ‘Fame’).
This is the point where Bowie’s voice starts resembling the one I first heard, unconsciously when I was a kid and ‘Let’s Dance’ was all over the radio, then consciously on the Labyrinth soundtrack. And it’s a point that reminds me how I love his voice, and what a luxury it is to sink in to all of it in chronological order, that voice that’s like an old friend and simultaneously so constantly fresh.
I have classical vocal training and am generally a devotee of singing voices. I should’ve known I’d never hack it in opera when I consistently preferred an interesting voice to a perfect bel canto. Vintage and classic rock and R&B abound in interesting voices, a constant feast for the ears. Forever one of my favorites is John Lennon’s, which I find poignantly beautiful even when it’s twisting, shouting, or vomiting misogyny.
Which brings us around to ‘Fame,’ and I’m glad to have my opinion backed by this excellent authority to the effect that it’s the song that doesn’t belong on this album. In particular, the other cuts sport a handful of backup singers. ‘Fame’ has only John ghosting fame in there like a particularly melodic parrot. There’s some disagreement about whose bits were whose: reads to me like a typical Lennon condemnation of stardom, but Bowie also had a history of jaundice about success and was about to sue the crap out of his manager. Regardless, the song was a huge hit even though it’s more than a little insulting to everyone in the fame machine, including the listeners.
He says “Who do I want you to be?” and then he insults them. Is anybody paying attention?
Now on to an album I’m ashamed to admit I’ve literally never listened to before. I have been on a lot of trains, though. And in a lot of Good Friday services.