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Week 58 | Station to Station (1976)

“Station to Station” is one of my favorite albums.  The nearest it comes to having a flaw is that with a mere six songs, it is too short.  It contains one of Bowie’s most complex songs as well as one of his (seemingly) simplest.  But it all works, and is the kind of album I can listen to repeatedly.

In a career characterized by constant transition, “Station to Station” is Bowie’s most self-consciously transitional album, but that doesn’t diminish it.  The title itself suggests movement from one phase to another.  The “stations” have a double meaning— as the synthesizer train sounds indicate, the “stations” are train stations, but as the religious symbolism throughout the album indicate (as well as Bowie himself explained), the stations are also stations of the cross.  In any case, Bowie is in motion, moving from one thing to another.  Chronologically and stylistically the album falls between his disco-inspired “plastic soul” album, “Young Americans,” and his Berlin trilogy.  “Station to Station” has a foot in both.  Some of the songs sound like they almost could have found a home on either the earlier or later album, for instance, it wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine “Golden Years” on “Young Americans.”  But really the overall sound is a unique blend of funk, electronic music and Bowie’s characteristic weirdness. 

The title track shows once again that Bowie knows how to start an album.  Like the opening track of so many other Bowie albums, “Station to Station” starts off quietly before building into a cacophonous eruption.   Here, again, the transition is explicit.  The train sound starts slowly, rolling into synthesized train whistles then the song itself.  The song, one of Bowie’s longest, is like “Sweet Thing/Candidate” and “Blackstar”— a song within a song.  The lyrics are explicitly about transition, and transition is what happens within its 10+ minutes.  As is the case with some of Bowie’s other better songs, “Station to Station” conveys an impression more than a clear narrative.  In addition to its transition theme, it employees imagery from Kabbalah (reinforced by the picture of Bowie drawing a symbol from Kabbalah, the tree of life, on the album’s back cover).  It also throws in ominous but ultimately ambiguous phrases— “its too late to be late again; its too late to be hateful; the European cannon is here.”  So what is the song about?  I’m not exactly sure.  But forty years later it was still on Bowie’s mind, when he pulled out the old striped suit he wore drawing that tree of life for a return engagement in his video for “Lazarus.”  By then the transition he was transmitting was from life to death. 

“Station to Station,” the song, is long, weird and complex.  It introduces the slightly scary Thin White Duke character and memorably references cocaine (“Its not the side effects of the cocaine; I’m thinking that it must be love”). All this makes it possibly the least appropriate Bowie song to be played at a political convention, yet there it was, played by the house band at the 2016 Republican National Convention.  I mention this for no other point than that it’s strangeness is infectious.

Immediately following this most intense of Bowie songs is one of Bowie’s most accessible, “Golden Years.”  Unlike many Bowie songs, this is one that is instantly likable.  I remember the first time I heard it, at my first Bowie concert in 1987, a Toronto stadium concert as part of the Glass Spider Tour.  This song was so mainstream that it fit in nicely during Bowie’s most pop-oriented period.  I would come to think of it as “beginner’s Bowie.”  Unlike some of my very favorite Bowie songs, my appreciation for “Golden Years” did not really grow from that first encounter…for a while.  I have come to think that there might be more going on with the song than is readily apparent.  Why would he plunk this pop-oriented crowdpleaser into an otherwise tortured mediation on faith and ultimately mortality?  The secret might be in the refrain that, “I’ll stick with you, baby, for a thousand years.”  So maybe this might be about immortality.  Or perhaps immorality— is the “golden” a reference to “the Golden Dawn,” an occult order associated with Aleister Crowley, which was also mentioned in the earlier song, “Quicksand”?  Or even Nazism— is that thousand year line an oblique reference to the “Thousand year Reich”?  On its most straightforward level, it is a celebration of a peak moment in life, which itself is ironic considering that Bowie was perhaps at a personal low point, in the throws of addiction.  (Though not at all intentional, considering it came out about a decade before, it kind of works as a counterpoint to Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days”).  

I might be overthinking “Golden Years,” but it is sandwiched between two religious songs.  The next song, which is the final song on the original album side, is Bowie’s most overt prayer song, “Word on a Wing.”  What I mean by “prater song” is that it is very much a straightforward prayer, put to music.  It is the prayer of someone struggling, “Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing; and I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things.”  To me, it is so much a precursor to “Sound and Vision” that I sometimes forget that that later song is not on this album.  In any case, the album is very slightly diminished by this song appearing in the middle of the CD version rather than the end of an album side.  “Side one” is very clearly about Bowie’s uneasy relationship with the eternal, while side two is not.  Bowie was not only conscious of how his album started and ended, but how the album side did as well.

Side two continues the theme of confusion, but is less religious.  The opening track, “TVC 15” is one of Bowie’s most humorous.  Unlike his earlier attempt at novelty songs, like “The Laughing Gnome,” Bowie here is far more subtle.  The humor is woven within great music.  The song, about an animated, omnipotent television (or, as he would later say, it is a love story about a girl and her television), was inspired by one of Bowie’s own drug-fueled paranoid delusions.  He also manages to remind his listeners that this albums is mostly about “transition” with the refrain).  That said, the song remains light.

What follows is not.  “Stay” has become one of my very favorite songs.  Like, “Station to Station,” it starts slowly and without words, before rolling into a lament about the week passing slowly (“the days fell on their knees”— one of my favorite lyrics).  But ultimately the song is once again about confusion.  He pleads for someone to stay, but he isn’t sure.  It is the analog of the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” but unlike that song, the dilemma is in the mind of the narrator.  

The album closes with a cover, “Wild is the Wind.”  This song has a similar sound to, “Word on a Wing,” but is thematically dissimilar to the album’s other songs.  It is a beautiful song, but unusual for a few reasons.  In addition to not really fitting in with the rest of the album, it is the uncommon (though not unique) Bowie cover of something that can be thought of as a “standard.”  Bowie was never afraid to record a cover.  Most such songs were either obscure songs, which Bowie would basically claim as his own (for instance, “Kingdom Come”), or well-known songs that Bowie would record essentially in homage to the song’s original creators (for instance, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”).  “Wild is the Wind” has been recorded by many artists but to my knowledge was not recorded by its actual authors, who are named Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington.  There are at least two other predominant versions, one nominated for an Academy Award, by Johnny Mathis (who recorded it for a 1957 move called, “Wild is the Wind,”) and the other by Nina Simone.  But there are many more versions recorded by everyone from Barbara Streisand to George Michael.  Its a slightly odd way to end this album, but it is a good song.

Then, just like that, the album is over, leaving me wanting more.  There is no finality, and I don’t think there was meant to be.  “Station to Station” is a crossroads album, coming from and leading to Bowie’s other offerings (including his movie, “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” an image from which appears on this album cover, as well as the album cover for, “Low”).  But for a career that was constantly in motion, the argument can be made that this is his most defining statement.

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