Saturday, January 23, 2021

David Bowie – Station to Station 45th Anniversary Review

Frequently referred to as Bowie’s transitional album, Station to Station is a masterful expression of existential unease and yearning for meaning. Serving as a vehicle for Bowie’s most unjoyful persona, The Thin White Duke, it is pre-emptive of The Berlin Trilogy’s colder, more industrial sound. As Bowie flees the cloying pleasures of LA, he takes a train towards Europe and Germany, arriving at the turbulent time of the German Autumn and into an atmosphere of great spiritual malaise. 

Numbed by his colossal use of cocaine, the disembodying experience of The Man Who Fell to Earth and his solipsistic existence in America, Bowie embarks on a journey of self-exploration, both earthly and spiritual. Station to Station presents to us the dichotomy of Bowie’s very being, the tension between his incredible creativity and his spiritual dissatisfaction, and captures the moment this tension turns into art...

The album kicks off with the titular track that develops over the course of ten minutes, conceptually beginning with the sounds of a stream engine, which morphs into the gradual and layered introduction of music instruments. This is the moment when we are faced with The Thin White Duke, a posturing and rather unsavoury figure that is our guide through this narrative. Originally confrontational and aloof, the mood switches abruptly midway and returns to the sort sound we had experienced in “Suffragette City”. Despite this, the lyrics maintain a frazzled feel with references to cocaine and lamentations that “It’s too late to be grateful, it’s too late to be late again”, suggesting a level of dissatisfaction with reality.


This deceiving energy is also present in “Golden Years”, “Stay” and “TVC15”, tracks that are reminiscent of Bowie’s 1975 album Young Americans. “Golden Years” especially possesses an infectiously soulful groove that is underlined by deceptively wearied lyrics. Bowie sings “Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere”, yet that journey seems to be a nightmare in disguise, as it also calls for one to “run for the shadows in these golden years”. Similarly, in “Stay”, a disco sound masks the reality of fatigue – “This week dragged past me so slowly / The days fell on their knees” – that curtails all desires and possibility for authentic self-expression. Bowie seems to be weeping as he dances, unable to stop the insatiable rhythm of life and music, forever stuck in the frenzy that he cannot fully feel. This detachment is aptly translated into the experience of living through a television screen in “TVC15”, a track that traps us in an eternal loop with its gradual increase in pace and manic energy.


Conversely, the two tracks which most align with Bowie’s true inner state are “Word on a Wing” and “Wild Is the Wind”, the latter of which being the only actively sorrowfully sounding bit of the album. Popularised by Nina Simone, “Wild Is the Wind” is yet another instance of Bowie making a cover sound like his own original material. As is the case with the cover of “Across the Universe”, this track showcases his instinctive feel for the minute emotional detail in the music. Paradoxically, as he croons “love me, love me, love me” with detached insistence, Bowie is able to turn the state of numbness into a visceral feeling that becomes increasingly more palpable as the track develops, aided by his impressive vocal performance.


This sense of emptiness and desperation is equally present in “Word on a Wing”, but is obscured by the seemingly upbeat music arrangement. This is perhaps Bowie’s most personal track on the album, driven by the pleading chorus, “Like a word on a wing/ My prayer flies / Like a word on a wing. / Does my prayer fit in / With your scheme of things?”. With direct addresses to God – “Lord, I kneel and offer you / My word on a wing” – and desperate questioning of one’s purpose, this track echoes back to Jesus’s words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. This connection isn’t accidental, as that title of the album, Station to Station, is actually meant to refer to the Stations of the Cross rather than train stations. Although it may seem so, Bowie doesn’t want to present himself as Jesus, but rather uses the story of the Cross and Resurrection as symbols for hope and higher meaning. “In the age of grand illusion”, this hope may seem a fantasy, but the feeling behind it is genuine, and it is this feeling that fights its way to the surface through this song.


45 years have passed since the release of Station to Station, and 5 since David Bowie’s death. As we look back on his career, it is important to remember that one of the greatest showmen of our age was also a deeply complex individual who continued to create and transform despite great personal difficulties. His ability to assume different personas was both his curse and his salvation, a way to escape the self and a path to further self-discovery. Station to Station captures this struggle, laying bare the circumstances that lead to the genesis of yet another form and the existential pain that this creation entails. It also exposes the man behind the work, riddled with insecurities, addictions and doubts, desperate to find a way to the surface. Therein lies Bowie’s singular magic: in his ability to transcend, transform and to take us along on this journey, from station, to station.  

Liza Kupreeva 


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