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Week 81 | Young Americans (1975)

Young Americans had been one of my least favorite Bowie albums for many years.  Sure I like the title track, as well as, “Fame,” which was Bowie’s first #1 single, at least in the US.  But those two songs stand out as distinct from much of the rest of the album.  There’s an accessible but not entirely great cover of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” and on my 1991 Rykodisc version, a bonus track edition of, “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” which, as Bowie might have put it, is all right.  

The rest of the songs are what Bowie called, “Plastic Soul.” “Win,” “Right,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and “Can You Hear Me” (plus, bonus tracks on my CD, “Who Can I Be Now” and, “Its Gonna Be Me)— are slow, overwrought and all kind of blend together.  These songs are not quite disco— both earlier songs, like, “1984,” and later songs, like, “Stay,” sound more like disco than something like, “Right.”  A few years later, Bowie would borrow disco era guitarist Niles Rogers for, “Let’s Dance,” which in a way is part of what came next, after disco.  “Young Americans” is almost a throwback to what came before. 

By the way- many of these songs are among Bowie’s more forgettable— did you remember Bowie had a song called, “Right?” Can you think of how it sounds?  Unless you just happened to have listened to the “Young Americans” album, the answer is probably, no.

Anyway, my thinking about, “Young Americans” has evolved as my appreciation of one song in particular— “Fascination,” which he co-wrote with Luther Vandross, who contributed as a backup singer on the album.  In a way, I think of this song as being like, “When I Live My Dream,” from Bowie’s first album— it is a good song that gets lost among its other, less distinguished counterparts.  And then, of course there are, “Fame” and, “Young Americans,” which are excellent.  I still don’t listen to this entire album too often, but there’s more to it than is evident at first.

“Young Americans” was Bowie’s biggest stylistic shift to this point in his career.  Yes, he played around with different styles while establishing himself in the 1960s, but the transformation from “Space Oddity” to “Ziggy Stardust,” was gradual.  Though, “Diamond Dogs,” hinted at something like, “Young Americans,” the actual shift was pretty stark.  Bowie did not shift back with his next album, “Station to Station,” and while that album has elements that could have fit in on, “Young Americans” (such as, “Golden Years,”), it is more the beginning of the path that would go through the Berlin Trilogy before landing at, “Scary Monsters.”  So, “Young Americans,” was something of an island, which probably did more to contribute to Bowie’s reputation as rock music’s “chameleon” than any other single album.  

The stylistic shift also masked another shift Bowie was experiencing— his voice was changing.  The songs on, “Young Americans,” are different enough than Bowie’s glam-era songs that his lower pitch seems deliberate.  It probably was deliberate, but he never got his Ziggy voice back.  So, despite the album’s flaws, Bowie was doing something important— figuring out how to make the most of what he had.  Its easy to imagine Bowie becoming a pastiche of himself if he continued to try to churn out glam songs, kept painting his face with a lightning bolt, and kept pretending to be an alien (after “Ziggy Stardust,” he wouldn’t so much as mention space again until “TVC15” and wouldn’t really put out a song in which space played a somewhat more central role until, “Ashes to Ashes”).  

To my ears, Bowie went through six major phases:  his early flailing period, glam, new wave (new Romantic?), pop, Tin Machine and his final phase which, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “adult.”  There were also one-offs, like “Earthling” (though even that had a thread connecting it to “The Buddha of Suburbia” and “1. Outside.”  “Young Americans” is singular.  I’m glad he didn’t follow it with a 70s version of, “Tonight” or “Never Let Me Down,” but I’m also glad in retrospect that Bowie felt, as he would later sing, a “need to move on.”  Glam was dead, Bowie would not find a permanent home as a soul singer, but there would be much more to come…

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