What’s in a song?: David Bowie – Sue (or in a season of crime)

It’s time to get serious. You all know that David Bowie has spent the past 18-odd months ascending from de-facto retirement to media dominance in typically Bowie-esque fashion. He doesn’t do things by halves does our Davey, if you’re going to make a comeback why not release a surprise single followed by a nostalgia-filled album (that surprisingly gained much acclaim) whilst having an exhibition dedicated to your career tour the world. Despite all that; now he treats us to yet another career-spanning compilation and a much hyped new single, wowsers! As they say; you wait hours for a bus… Today we will have a little chat about why this single has got the cool kids and critics alike all a-flutter with admiration. Namely; Bowie’s gone Jazz!

For starters I must make it clear that I am a deep fan of Bowie. One of my University dissertations was a critical analysis of his 90’s output (a fact you should probably remember) and I have a tendency of writing effusively about him. Still, I’ll try and put that to one side unless needed. There is a danger when writing about art that you let your base emotions get in the way of clear thought. So from a cold, calculating view worthy of the title ‘the appraisal’ I can say that if you’re into it, it’s a damn fine song. Elegant, languid and achingly cool. Maybe a little too cool. Knowingly cool. You see; to know Bowie is to realise that almost everything he does is calculated and planned. It’s the reason for his success and why for many years he managed to keep ahead of the curve. It’s why he has become a by-word for reinvention. Each creative shift becoming as inorganic as a marketing survey. Bowie has consistently; purposefully created situations where his music is forced to develop in strange ways; much like growing watermelons in square boxes to create that preconceived shape. Evidence? Well hows about the very public firing of the Spiders from Mars and killing the character of Ziggy to nourish the more expansive sound of Aladdin Sane? Or the hiring of Nile Rogers on Let’s Dance to produce the album that actually made him some money? Or Tin Machine? How quick we were to forget Tin Machine.

Tin Machine and their lurid, lurid trousers.

It’s been an interesting time being a fan these past few years. When I first announced to my family at large that I was becoming a proper fan of Bowie, my dear eldest cousin started singing Tin Machine at me as if I was a muppet. Most of my musically minded friends were in agreement that the early stuff was brilliant but that nothing since ‘Scary Monsters’ was worthy of a mention. Though the discovery of ‘The Laughing Gnome‘ became the stick they used to playfully hit us with. Such was the state of Bowie within popular conscience, nothing but an old veteran put out to pasture.

So why is he putting such effort into coming back to us now? He may have been out grazing on the fields but to those in the know he retained a special significance. I know he did to me. You see, I didn’t discover Bowie alone; I did it in tandem with my bro AllyinKorea and he has a pretty interesting theory for all this activity. So; it has been noted by the man himself that each new album has been greeted by the critics claiming it to be “the best since Scary Monsters”. It is also a fair statement to say that most of the 80’s and 90’s albums were full on derided for either lack of or too much ambition; lack of focus and bad, bad songs. Maybe the world wanted to bring him down a peg or two because hindsight is fast re-appraising these lost albums with fresh ears. AllyinKorea’s theory goes that Bowie has noticed this and is building up his image as an eclectic master so that we begin to view these albums fondly and give them the respect they deserve. All talk in The Guardian and Telegraph of a new ‘re-invention’ for Bowie is misled. For once he’s not looking forward, he’s looking back. Put simply, he’s done Jazz before and he wants us to remember it. Sure, not really on the same scale (The Maria Schneider Orchestra can’t be cheap) but the essence of Jazz (as far as a genre can have one) is writ all over his 90’s work. It’s writ all over ‘1.Outside’ like errant ivy. That album, man. Ooh that opened my eyes. It’s one of those “listen with a lit candle and you will see your whole future”-type deals. But it is maligned because it is long and it is weird. I must stress, I don’t like it BECAUSE it is long and weird (I don’t live in Shoreditch); I just happen to love it despite it’s inaccessibility. Anyways; compare the new song ‘Sue’ with ‘A Small Plot of Land‘ from 1.Outside. Different, yes; but oh, so similar. Replace the discordant orchestra with discordant synths and keys and you realise Bowie has reworked a previous identity, not formed a new one. All the bluff about not getting Jazz is calculated misdirection. He is counting on those of us that know to draw your attention to this. To get you interested in this vast pile of maligned music because it is all awesome. And oh how you should be interested, it’s treats all the way! Except Tin Machine 2. Well, maybe a little Tin Machine 2; if only for the holidays.

Love Bobo with all your being? Find Bowie a washed up has-been? Live in Shoreditch? 
Comment, yo!

6 thoughts on “What’s in a song?: David Bowie – Sue (or in a season of crime)

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