Divine Symmetry is a new, multi-media package of Bowie materials including several CDs worth of music, framed as “the Journey to Hunky Dory.” I am in the process of listening to the discs and experiencing the whole of the package. Since this is a daily blog, and the entity of the package contains so much stuff, I think its better that I comment as I go, starting with the first of the discs, which is titled, “The Songwriting Demos Plus.” Not surprisingly, the disc contains demos of variable quality of some familiar songs, as well as some that never made it to Hunky Dory or any other studio album. The sound quality is uniformly not great— songs often sound wobbly. Also, Bowie’s voice sounds much weaker than it does on the final album, and of course some of the songs that we are accustomed to hearing backed by a band are, here only backed by (presumably) Bowie’s guitar. The disc does not pretend to be anything more than a collection of demos, and that’s what it is. So, while it has high value as a curiosity, it has considerably less replay value.
OK, so that’s all the bad. But there’s more about Disc 1 that’s good. To begin with, demos-though-they-might-be, many of the songs are either new to me, or at least songs I don’t have anywhere else on CD. First out of the gate is, “Tired of My Life,” which is a very, very early version of the song that eventually became “Its No Game” about a decade later. Fascinating. My reaction upon hearing it was, “finally I have this on CD.” Similarly, “Right On Mother” made news a few years ago for being “unearthed” and had previously been the stuff of rumor (sadly, it’s not a very good song).
I have never heard, and I don’t think even heard of, “How Lucky Are You,” “Looking for A Friend” or “King of the City.” Hearing them was hearing new Bowie music for the first time (albeit the new music is more than half a century old).
The balance of the disc includes demos of better known songs that nonetheless never made it to any studio albums— “Amsterdam,” “Bombers” and “Shadow Man” (well, Bowie eventually recorded that one for Toy in 2000, so it did make an album), as well as early versions of better known songs such as “Queen Bitch” and “Life on Mars?”
The title, “divine symmetry” comes from the song, “Quicksand,” two versions of which appear on Disc 1. “Quicksand” is one of Bowie’s more depressing and also cryptic songs. The divine symmetry of the song is symmetry between “light and dark,” which the song’s narrator is “torn between.” The narrator returns to the idea of being in between later in the song with the lines, “If I don’t explain what you ought to know
You can tell me all about it on the next Bardo”— “Bardo” being the Buddhist state between death and reincarnation. Perhaps Bowie had a sense of his own in-between state, having toiled already for several years as a little-known musician but being on the cusp of fame, and with Hunky Dory also being on the cusp of artistic greatness.
And that’s what Disc 1 is— an in-between work, sitting, as it were, between vision and sound.
Finally, while I don’t know how much long-term replay value it will end up having, I have found myself listing to it repeatedly already.