Thursday, 16 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #73: Young Americans (1975)

David Bowie makes his fourth appearance on our chart with Young Americans, the album which brought him great success in the States for the first time, and the record which created the genre of 'plastic soul' - that is, soul music done tongue-in-cheek by white musicians.After breaking up the Spiders from Mars on stage in July 1973 and completing the cover album Pin-Ups, Bowie rekindled his earlier interests in the stage by attempting to create a dystopian musical based loosely on George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). But problems with Orwell's estate meant that neither the musical nor the film that he planned got far. With clarion calls for a new record, he combined the music that he had produced thus far to create the fragmented Diamond Dogs (1974), taking on the character of Hallowe'en Jack. But as the following tour progressed - producing the live album David Live (1974) - Bowie began to be more interested by the 'Philly Soul' sound, to the extent that he both moved to Philadelphia, and suspended the tour so that he could write some soul numbers to include in the second leg of what became known as the Philly Dogs tour.

Young Americans, then, is the culmination of Bowie's fascination with so-called 'plastic soul'. The title track, which kicks us off, begins with a very finely orchestrated combination of drums, piano and saxophone. We are coated in a luscious layer of American soul sound before Bowie comes in for the first time. And this is a different kind of Bowie voice. While his work in the early-1970s - from Hunky Dory to Diamond Dogs - had cast him as an edgy, slightly awkward rocker, here he comes across as a suave, sensitive and sophisticated performer with no room for vocal error. With a delivery more reminiscent of The Man Who Sold The World (1970), and very witty lyrics, this is a very worthy introduction and a smooth departure from his previous incarnations.

'Win' seeks to consolidate this new, luscious and textured feel, and does so in the clever use of bass, saxophones and the ever-present female harmonies. This is more laid-back, allowing Bowie to croon and slide over the guitar parts. The chorus is perfectly executed, and there is some clever question-and-answer - almost banter - between Bowie and the saxophone by the time the second verse is running its course. At the same time, it retains the Bowie motif of changes in time signature and strange choice of notes.

With its darker, more brooding sound, 'Fascination' opens like a cross between a Peter Frampton live album and an offcut from "Heroes" (1977). Still, Bowie's delivery and the female vocals quickly transmute this into a more complex soul workout than the other two provided. Bowie seems here to be singing about himself and his inability to stand still when it comes to music. Lines like I know that people think that I'm a little crazy and the chorus (Fascination/ Showing off/ Takes a part of me etc.) are a clear message to his earlier fans, still distressed at the 'retirement' of Ziggy Stardust and confused by Bowie's choice of direction.

'Right' is the first track on the album to fail to complete justify its place. Coming at the halfway point, it finds Bowie experimenting with his vocal ranges and being increasingly irritating in the process. The quickfire sections of the song barely make any sense, and the tempo is too regular to half-justify them. Add in some underused alto sax and some equally pointless female vocals and you have a big let-down on your hands.

It doesn't take long for Bowie to pull himself together, however, and 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' is a sparkling return to form. The joint graft of piano and sax is great, and there is a firm bass part to underscore it all in true soul style. Admittedly, this does take a bit longer to reach its objective than some of the songs on the album, but when it does, you're instantly hooked. 'Across The Universe', with its acoustic opening, turns back the clock to the days of Space Oddity (1969) and Hunky Dory, and is littered with wonderfully ironic lines like Nothing's going to change my world. Bowie is faintly pre-Ziggy in his choice of registers, and this has a rockier feel to it - not least in the distinctive hi-hat work, which has a Buddy Rich feel to it.

'Can You Hear Me' takes the successful formula of the title track and attempts to replicate it while slowing the tempo down quick drastically. Cynics may scoff at this, but in fact it's one of the better tracks on the album. Not the best, mind - that honour goes to 'Fascination'. In its favour, the lyrics on this song are much easier to pick up, without rendering them vacuous; and Bowie's voice has rarely sounded better when strenched over such as a range. It's a great song, a little long perhaps, but the extra space is amply filled by Bowie's improvisations.

Critics raved about 'Fame' when it was released as a single, describing it as an accurate portrayal of the life of an artist stretched to the brink, working relentlessly just to avoid bankruptcy. With all this reputation to live up to, it is a little disappointing. It will grow on you, particularly as you explore Bowie's later efforts of this period, but its main flaw is that it jars with the rest of the album. While the rest of the record has been a homage to the Philadephia sound, with some tongue-in-cheek stuff thrown in for good measure, this is pure introspective, albeit in a funky sort of way. On any other album, this would have been a great song - just not here.

Young Americans came as a shock to Bowie's fans: even those who saw him move towards R&B in the Philly Dogs tour found the transition a little hard to stomach. Critics were equally unsure about the album, although there came an eventual consensus that it was not enough of a departure from any given sound to warrant the title of a Bowie masterpiece. As AllMusicGuide.com puts it, "even at his most passionate, Bowie sounds like a commentator, as if the entire album was a genre exercise... Young Americans is more enjoyable as a stylistic adventure than as a substantive record."¹ And yet, this is a deeply sophisticated record. It hangs together like a soul record, it sounds like a soul record - but the difference is that Bowie has peppered this with his own charm, wit and pretension. The result is an erudite, educated and informed effort which is highly enjoyable. At the very least, it's a damn-sight better than Diamond Dogs.

3.75 out of 5

References

¹ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, 'Young Americans', http://www.allmusicguide.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:0ifixqq5ld0e. Accessed on August 18 2007.

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