Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #100: Station To Station (1976)

Well, we have to start somewhere on the countdown of my Top 100 albums. And we begin with David Bowie's lowest entry on the chart, Station To Station (1976).

By the time Station To Station came along, Bowie's career had taken many a turn for better or worse. After 'retiring' the Ziggy Stardust character - present on both The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972) and its follow-up Aladdin Sane (1973) - Bowie had sought to branch out into theatre. He intended to produce a musical version of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, but Orwell's estate blocked him from changing the book into a filmscript. The resulting album, Diamond Dogs (1974), sold poorly, both because of the quality of songs and the fans' backlash from 'killing off' Ziggy when glam rock was still going strong. Bowie responded by relocating to America, where he became fascinated by soul music. In 1975 he delivered the highly-praised and transitional Young Americans, creating the genre of 'plastic soul'.

Station To Station saw the debut of a new Bowie character, the Thin White Duke. Unlike Ziggy, the flamboyant, bisexual, androgynous transvestite, the Thin White Duke was straight, suave, sophisticated - and fascist. Bowie by this time was heavily dependent on drugs; living off a diet of cocaine and milk caused him to lose a lot of weight, giving him a skeletal appearance similar to that of a dying Freddie Mercury. The cocaine caused him to become paranoid, culminating in a PR disaster: on his return to England in late-1976, he gave the expectant crowds a Nazi salute. It did so much damage that it persuaded Bowie to clean himself up. He moved to Berlin(?!) to live and work with Brian Eno, which eventually produced the acclaimed Berlin trilogy - Low (1977), 'Heroes' (1977) and Lodger (1979).

The epic opening/ title track begins with the sound of trains. Eventually we hear one pulling into the station, at which point the first traces of guitar and piano kick in. We are treated to several minutes of scene-setting, layered riffs before Bowie croons the opening lines: The return of the Thin White Duke/ Throwing darts in lovers' eyes. The 'return' implies that this side of Bowie has been present all along, which can be put down to the liberal drug culture of 1970s and Bowie's vocal style, which he honed on Young Americans. But before long, the song changes drastically, with a greater urgency shown through the time signature Bowie's voice which becomes more screechy.

'Golden Years' is more feelgood and feels like a cabaret track, precisely the stage that the Thin White Duke needed. The song is bright, rhythm and an easy dancer - as proved by its (of course anachronistic) use in the Heath Ledger film A Knight's Tale (2001). The song also benefits from quick lyrics counterpounted by simple, subtle bass lines which leave you feeling relaxed, like you're lounging in a Los Angeles club without a care in the world.

'Word On A Wing' switches back to stricken. Despite the jarring piano opening, this is Bowie at his best when it comes to emotive songwriting. His voice is pleading yet reassuring, drawing you in. Going against persona by the song's close, what starts as another polished cabaret number along the lines of 'Golden Years' turns into a spiritual plea with him on his knees. It's a deep love song and very powerful when taken with a pinch of salt, considering Bowie's ever-surreal influences and unexpected changes in direction.

'TVC 15' is probably the strangest track on the record, sounding as it does like a B-side from Young Americans with the technical prowess of Hunky Dory (1971). It's too jazzy to fit perfectly, with the prominent saxophone backing to the vocals, and yet you come away highly satisfied if a little clueless to the song's meaning. 'Stay', the penultimate track, also has a 'plastic soul' feel to it, especially in the chorus, but like the opener it tries to be clever with a lengthy introduction - the difference is that this time it feels like excess material.

The closer, 'Wild Is The Wind', finds Bowie at his most sombre until the soundtrack item 'Drowned Girl' from 1982 (both the videos are, interestingly, shot in black and white and features an actual recording of the studio performance). Bowie's lyrics are a cry for help - Love me, love me, love me, love me, say you do - , the cries of a man falling apart with his only salvation in love. Overall, the song is a little too repetitive and the ending is too long, yet it has a special quality to it.

Station To Station is by no means Bowie's best album, of the golden age or overall. It makes an important bridge between the commercialism of his glam rock days and the introspective technical fascinations of the Berlin era. It is a show case for Bowie burdened by a fame he never sought and, like Pink Floyd, he didn't know how to deal with it. The latter two songs are the lesser tracks musically, but lyrically this is generally a strong effort. The problem is either that Bowie cannot sustain the quality of the openers throughout, or that his emotional problems become a drag. Nevertheless, an interesting effort which set things up for albums to come.

3.67 out of 5

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