First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2007, Volume 14, #6
Written by John Metzger
Wed June 27, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Much as he predicted, David Bowie hit the big time in 1972 by transforming himself from the relatively obscure, British folkie of Hunky Dory into the space-age, glam-rock messiah of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Ratcheting up the rock on 1973’s Aladdin Sane sealed the deal for him in America, but the dissipation of the glam movement left him wondering where to turn. Never one to pass up an opportunity to co-opt current musical trends to suit his own purpose, Bowie tentatively began to dabble in R&B during the sessions for Diamond Dogs. Although the Memphis-baked groove of Dodo didn’t fit within the scope of the album, it provided the groundwork for his mid-tour re-invention, which subsequently spawned the thrilling joyride of Young Americans.
Other than its accompanying surround sound mix and a previously unreleased rendition of It’s Gonna Be Me, the latest incarnation of Young Americans boasts nothing new. Its extras include a pair of previously available cuts (the gospel-soul Who Can I Be Now? and a disco-fied romp through John, I’m Only Dancing) as well as material that was culled from Bowie’s 1974 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. Although it spawned two durable, classic songs (Fame and the title track) and also featured a cameo from John Lennon, the album remains one of the most overlooked outings in Bowie’s canon, which likely is related as much to its striking conventionality as it is to the Thin White Duke’s own waffling about its relevance.
Bowie’s early works had been marked by a sense of isolation, detachment, and dissatisfaction, and these themes resurfaced once again in Young Americans. "Ain’t there just one damn song that can make me break down and cry?" he asked in the midst of the driving dance-friendly groove of the title track. The query was a plea for emotional connection from someone who, in an era of excess, was lost within the numbing haze of cocaine. Likewise, the concluding Fame addressed the alienation that comes as a consequence of being a celebrity.
In spite of the sometimes heavy aura of its underlying drama, however, Young Americans was a more straightforward, pop-oriented effort, and it consequently was much easier to embrace. Bowie had toned down the extended storylines as well as the art-rock lyricism of his preceding endeavors, and this is precisely where the album so frequently is misunderstood and so unjustly dismissed. While the words he sang remained important, they weren’t designed to be the sole focus of the endeavor. Instead, Young Americans highlighted how obsessed with rhythmic grooves he had become.
Shifting from dance-friendly tunes like Fame, Fascination, Right, and the title track to the ethereal softness of Win to the breathy, gospel-imbued Somebody Up There Likes Me, the music Bowie concocted for Young Americans provided a remarkably thorough exploration of the various ways in which instruments and voices can interact. Throughout the set, the soaring saxophone accompaniments of David Sanborn darted through the circular, rhythmic currents that were formed by the waves of guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and congas. Even the give-and-take between Bowie and his backing vocalists — which included up-and-comer Luther Vandross — was constructed around the percussive effects that it would generate. Despite the inherent busyness of the arrangements, the structural precision of the material allowed these component sounds to coalesce into a series of driving beats that, more often than not, were downright irresistible.
Still, Bowie’s experimentation wasn’t always successful. His soul-infused interpretation of The Beatles’ Across the Universe was too over-the-top to work. Similarly, none of the ballads on Young Americans were nearly as gratifying, contagious, or moving as the set’s up-tempo cuts. Yet, aside from these missteps, the outing continues to serve its purpose quite well. At the very least, Young Americans can be viewed as the critical link that connects James Brown’s furious funk with the Talking Heads’ rich, polyrhythmic stew. ˝
Of Further Interest...
Young Americans is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box