Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Lodger In Us All

(My computer is currently busted for unknown reasons, so I've been using my old tower for the last few days. In the process, I've found a replication of an old David Bowie website I used to run on Geocities. I ran the site, Repetition, for several years until a lack of contributions and interest sent it into the web graveyard. Over the next week or so, I'm going to be reprinting some of my articles from that site. I hope you enjoy!)

David Bowie's 1979 album, Lodger, was his third and final "Berlin" collaboration (the trio of albums recorded in Berlin) with Roxy Music's Brian Eno. It was also an album whose "eclecticism and experimentation" (Buckley, David, p. 69-70) made it an artistic success, but a commercial failure. Bowie's returning lust for fame ultimately clashed with Eno's ideologies and Lodger wound up sounding like two different albums playing at the same time, which was probably why the album was so original. Muddled somewhere in the layers of sound was a message, however. For those who listened closely, Lodger is actually an amazing commentary on the human condition.

Longtime Bowie watcher David Buckley noted a few important conceptual ideas about the first half of Lodger (p. 70). Bowie uses his own experiences in life to cover a subject understood by many on "Move On." The idea that "somewhere, someone's calling me" is one that many people have throughout their lives. In fictionalized form, Bowie describes the adventures of "a traveling man," possibly commenting on his own desire to travel around the world. However, closer inspection reveals that wanderlust was only half the story of Lodger. "Fantastic Voyage" makes a few expressions about the roles of men in society in the lines "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?" Bowie continues in that vein, commenting on how women feel around men when he states "we're learning to live with somebody's depression." Through this, Bowie tries to reach out to a female audience that had been alienated by the forbidding timbres of the first two "Berlin" albums (Low and "Heroes"). A few females weren't the only ones alienated by Bowie in the late 70s, unfortunately.

Further into side one, a stance against racism (one that was surprising to some, given the accusations of racism that forced him into hiding in Berlin in the late 70s) can be seen in the Burroughsian cut and paste lines of "Red Sails" ("do you remember we another person, green and black and red and so scared. Graffiti on the wall keep us all in tune; bringing us all back home.") It isn't quite certain why Bowie would want to hide such a statement, especially with the press after him for being a racist. Bowie's fan base had dwindled due to careless acts on his part and it would have made perfect sense to bring those he had alienated previously back into the fold. Whatever the reason, the statement is still there and visible for those who look for it. Lodger's second side, however, alters those statements towards the gloomy for a much darker look at life.

Side two of Lodger reveals what Buckley called a critique on "Anglo-American consumer society" (p. 70); the songs prove that he's not far off. "Red Money" has a very obvious analytical spin to it ("project canceled, tumbling central, red money"), but it's narrow scope doesn't mean much to most people. Some of the songs, however, are universal in their scope. Jon Savage called "D.J." an "amusing and sharp look at the fear of instant obsolescence that runs through all media" (p. 161). Using sharp characterization, Bowie lets "D.J.'s" protagonist speak his mind about his reasons for not being fired ("I am a D.J., I am what I play. I got believers, believing me."). A few songs later, however, the commentary turns much more pessimistic.

Bowie reaffirms "Fantastic Voyage's" theme of the roles that men play later in the album (this time with a blue-collar twist) on "Repetition," a droning, but focused review of a wife-beating worker ("well Johnny is a man and he's bigger than her. I guess the bruises won't show if she wears long sleeves."). Bowie is at his most direct here, playing a sort of detached observer callously reviewing the sadness of Johnny and how he takes it out on his wife; occasionally he breaks his silence and cautions, "don't hit her." In fact, it would be rather valid to theorize that the singer could be a detached form of either Johnny or his wife. "Repetition" is one of the few instances in Lodger where Bowie's hidden messages are overtly evident. Another is the "seedy angel of death" in "Look Back In Anger" that makes a case against the trivialization of religion and the fear that people have of leaving things undone in this world (Buckley, David. p. 71). Both "Repetition" and "Look Back In Anger" shine due to their bluntness, but the album as a whole doesn't make things as clear.

Lodger hides its commentary for obvious reasons. Most people don't like having a mirror put up to their own personalities. These themes of personal alienation and social fanaticism are likely reasons why the album is titled Lodger. We are all lodgers in some way or another in our lives. Be it at work or at home, everyone has a certain level of fear of being alienated. Bowie's Lodger obliquely shows that that fear is what makes us so alienated in the first place.
Works cited:

Buckley, David. The Complete Guide To The Music Of David Bowie. New York: Omnibus Press, 1996.

Thomson, Elizabeth and Gutman, David, Editors. The Bowie Companion. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.

© Feb 5, 1998 Michael A. Liebel

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