22. Quicksand (1971)
When we left off, so long ago, it was with the quiet nihilism of ‘After All’. I chose that song purposefully as it felt like a bridge between Bowie’s earliest recordings to his Gilded Age, the golden years of the early 1970s. The album that kicks off that most famous and distinctive eras of Bowie is Hunky Dory. Tracks like ‘Life on Mars?’, ‘Changes’ and ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ populate Side One of this 1971 release – and, most Best Of compliations since then.
‘Quicksand’ lurks here, at the end of Side One but apart from its peers. It has that graceful-butterfly-in-a-music-hall feel that much of Hunky Dory possesses, but there’s also a strong through-line from ‘After All’. In that earlier track, the narrator entreats us to “hold on to nothing, and he won’t let you down”, and “live ’til your rebirth and do what you will”. In ‘Quicksand’, the narrator has become “torn between the light and dark,” and ultimately is consumed by indecision, faithlessness and fear. He sings, “I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought and I ain’t got the power anymore. Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief; knowledge comes with death’s release.”
Our artist would write graceful ballads again, but ‘Quicksand’ drew a line between the old Bowie and the new. The nihilism of ‘Quicksand’ got buried, and something new emerged.
23. Soul Love (1972)
This one was tough. Back at track #17, ‘Hang Into Yourself’, I said that deep cuts on an album like Ziggy Stardust are tough to find. Finding a second one, doubly so – and then of course, to find one that flows on from ‘Quicksand’… well, that’s a little tricky. My original choice was ‘Rock & Roll Suicide’, Stardust‘s closing track. That song is weirdly too close for me to write about; I can’t get enough distance to say anything particularly coherent about it. If you’d like to understand it more, try the excellent Pushing Ahead Of The Dame, where Chris O’Leary describes the song beginning “as a pastiche of Jacques Brel” before erupting into “a grandiose Judy Garland finale that feeds its audience’s narcissism at the expense of its performer’s.” In any case, my coherence aside, ‘Suicide’ simply isn’t a deep enough cut for what I’m aiming for here with this series. So, onto ‘Soul Love’.
‘After All’ and ‘Quicksand’ gave us nihilism, regret and disappointment. ‘Soul Love’ has a murmur of that too, for sure. Love here can be a “stone love – she kneels before the grave / A brave son – who gave his life to save the slogans” – but it is also energised somehow, treated as something more complex and multi-faceted than the Bowie of earlier years may have considered. It’s also new love, where “a boy and girl are talking new words that only they can share in”; soul love of “the priest that tastes the word and told of love and how my God on high is all love”. It can be careless, idiotic and more besides. It’s a great, complicated track, shining more softly than the legendary bright lights of Ziggy the Leper Messiah – all stardust and “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” – that exists in our collective memory.
24. Lady Grinning Soul (1973)
The close of an album and an era, ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ finishes off Aladdin Sane, and with it (Pin-Ups nothwithstanding) the glam zenith of Bowie. That period ran from, roughly, 1971 to 1973 (give or take some months either side). Such a brief period to transform lives, Bowie’s amongst them. If Bowie had ended here – dead of some inevitable overdose, faking his own death like Maxwell Demon, or simply fading away – we would be left with an outstanding catalogue of work, filled with verve, hope and promise. ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ hints at a Bowie that could have been. It’s piano, Latin guitars, exoticism and mystery, a Bond theme without a movie. More fey than glam, it acts as a curious coda to the Ziggy / Aladdin era. It adds rather than summing up, teasing us with elusive could-have-beens. I include it here as a counterpoint to the triumphalism and boldness of Ziggy tracks like ‘Soul Love’ and the nearly-featured ‘Rock & Roll Suicide’. This is a Bowie that defies expectation, even at the peak of success. ‘Soul’ pays only lip service to themes of death, depression, love and metamorphosis that have been present for many of the tracks featured to date. “She will be your living end,” he sings, but he is neither concerned nor afraid.