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Messing With Major Tom

Scary Monsters David Bowie RCA Records

By Scott A. Rosenberg

THERE ARE PUBLIC FIGURES whose magnetism attracts all the uncharged particles of hostility in the world and gives them a direction. For some, David Bowie is everything that is wrong with '70s youth culture--the noise, the drugs, the posing--presented as an orange-haired, made-up androgyne. His dabbling beyond pop music simply stretched his dilettantism further than anyone else's, and the dissipated exile he played in The Man Who Fell to Earth sitting drunk at poolside in the film's final scene seemed his logical resting place. To at least one defender of high kultur writing in the New York Times Book Review last year, Bowie of all our entertainers most perfectly personified decadence.

The popular conception of Bowie's parabolic musical career, even on the part of sympathetic critics, has been tinged with some of this Victorian opprobrium: Bowie the musical chameleon, the masquer, just doesn't seem to have the stamina to stick to one style and wring out its musical worth, but must nomadically migrate to a new brand of music and a new "persona" on each album to amuse his audience. This kind of analysis, aside from its off-hand assumption that a popular musician always changes for commercial and not for evolutionary reasons, also treats with bland ignorance the musical development of Bowie's last three albums. With Brian Eno's aid. Bowie built a triptych of immense proportions, charting sonic territories for a new generation of musicians to populace. Atop this musical canvas he has now added Scary Monsters like a vision of the Last Judgment, with synthesized demons crawling from between every bar.

THIS LATEST ALBUM from the author of "Changes" should convince even the most skeptical that Bowie is governed by more than just restlessness--that there is synthesis as well as contradiction in his progress. Scary Monsters miraculously harnesses the techniques Bowie picked up from Eno--how to layer musical textures, how to manipulate odd rhythms--to a murky vision of a world without order or hope. Bowie last peered into this world on Diamond Dogs, where more conventional music illustrated a post-apocalyptic desolation. Diamond Dogs was a desperate album, the kind you might not want to listen to unless you were sober. But Scary Monsters is more chilling--it's not suffering the effects of catastrophe, but trembling on its edge.

Documentaries on refugees

Couples 'gainst the target

Throw the rock upon the road

And it breaks into pieces

Draw the blinds on yesterday

And it's all so much scarier

Put a bullet in my brain

And it makes all the papers

"It's No Game" (which opens and closes the album, first in an English-Japanese duet and then in a stripped-down, relentless solo) takes Bowie on a journey through the poverty-ridden sinkholes of the world--not for the adventure as on his last album's "African Night Flight," but as an exercise in wide-eyed horror:

Children round the world

Put camel shit on the wall

Making carpets on treadmills

Or garbage sorting

And it's no game

THE MUSIC BOWIE employs on Scary Monsters matches this consciousness of sub-terranean gloom: it is shuddering, dissonant, ponderous, complex. "Scream Like a Baby" opens with a thud from George Murray's bass and a wail from Bowie; then, to a leaden bass drum beat and descending synthesized tones it tells a story of pointless assimilation:

Thrown into the wagon

Blindfold chains and stomped on us

Took away our clothes and things

Pumped us full of strange drugs

And oh I saw Sam talking

Spitting in their eyes

But now I lay me down to sleep

But now I close my eyes

And I'm learning to be a part of soci...societ...

Elsewhere Bowie uses ballads ("Teenage Wildfire"), funk ("Fashion"), and pop ("Up the Hill Backwards") to deliver his dejection. But the dominant musical scheme of Scary Monsters is a more accessible, refined edition of Bowie's sound on Heroes--guitar screams and synthesizer whooshes on top and an aggressively precise bass on bottom frame Bowie's vocal trapeze act, which swings from throaty baritone to wide-open tenor with effort but control.

By far the most memorably disturbing song on Scary Monsters is "Ashes to Ashes," a deceptively sugar-coated single that promises a bed-time story and delivers Bowie's confession instead:

I've never done good things

I've never done bad things

I've never done anything out of the blue

I want an axe to break the ice

I want to come down right now

His voice rings out over an expanse of synthesized whooshing, as a ghostly chorus of deep Bowie-voices echoes every word and moan. A song like this suggests Bowie is not at all rootless, but almost pathological in his self-inspection, picking through the bones of his past work in a frantic attempt to piece together his own skeleton.

Wherever it travels--and it wanders far--Scary Monsters seems to carry an ominous touch of fire and brimstone. Even the one cover track on the album, Tom Verlaine's "Kingdom Come," though more upbeat than Bowie's compositions, also has the touch of the prophet. It's as though, after the technical experiments of his recent albums. Bowie has let his personal obsessions re-enter his music, and he's now better equipped to animate them. Those obsessions appear with a clarity here that far exceeds any of Bowie's past work, obsessions with violence, with anger, with decay and with death--not with drag, make-up or the trappings of the facile entertainer. With thoughts like those, and with music like this, Bowie fashions a decadence that tears and scratches at a decadent world.

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