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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork JANUARY 22, 2016 - by Mike Powell
DAVID BOWIE: LODGER
The thing to know about David Bowie's 1979 album Lodger is that there really isn't anything special to know: No creation myth, no alter ego, no ten-minute-long song-suites or spooky instrumentals or pretentious backstories about George Orwell and "the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock." Actually, Lodger might be the first David Bowie album marketed as nothing more than an album of recorded music by David Bowie. "I would like to do something rivetingly new and, uh, earth shattering," he said in a radio interview a few days before the album's release. "Every Saturday I want to do that!" Then, self-mockery: "Let's do something earth shattering. No, let's put the telly on." A few minutes later, his digression on the metaphorical impacts of science fiction on personal identity is interrupted by a dog. Like, a canine, whimpering aloud while Bowie unburdens himself about inner space. "I know it's a bore, darling," he says to the dog, and everyone, including David Bowie, laughs.
The dog had a point: Seriousness really can be boring after awhile, which might've occurred to Bowie after the cold white peaks of 1977's Low. Sensing that high art might be losing its flavour, he went on a long, generous tour called Isolar II during which he revived the entirety of 1972's Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, a gesture that in the context of his restlessly radical early-'70s career would've been like staging a Vegas revue. "He's remembering that bone shot in 2001," Bowie says of the dog during the radio interview. "What a waste of a bone!" A showman by birth and narcissist by trade, Bowie could've easily been talking about himself.
Lodger has ten songs, all of which are three to four minutes long. One is a great Talking Heads impression called D.J. and another is basically a Brian Eno song with vocals by David Bowie instead of Brian Eno (Red Sails). The music is punky and dramatic and a little odd, with detours into reggae and near-Eastern tonalities (Yassassin) and nebulously exotic "world" sounds (African Night Flight), all filtered through the ears of a British guy with plenty of money and the imperial leeway to appropriate whatever he felt like. To this day, no musician has better mastered the hermetic intensity of cocaine, a drug that makes you want to have long conversations with everyone you've ever met without leaving your room.
Prior to Lodger, Bowie's alien status was existential, metaphorical, general - a one-size-fits-all garment for anyone convinced they'd been born in the wrong time or with the wrong body. But for as many people who saw their idealised selves in Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane, Lodger was the first time Bowie really seemed accessible - a character with flaws and frailties, petty thoughts and grocery lists; someone who doesn't just dabble in reality but lives in it. Look Back In Anger opens with a wild panorama of guitar before devolving into a story about an angel with a cough; D.J. is childish and bitchy; Boys Keep Swinging, which Bowie apparently wrote after listening to the Village People, actually does sound a little like the Village People but less secure in its sexuality. When David Bowie sings the word "depression" on Fantastic Voyage, it's like listening to Zeus complain about sorting lights and darks.
The title alone reduces his myth to something banal and transactional: No longer the Lonely Starchild gracing us with his unusual point of view, we instead meet Safari Bowie, half-drunk tourist working out his masculinity issues by haggling with street vendors, Bowie the houseguest who can't stop talking about getting "authentic" tacos. The first half of Lodger especially, with its cartoon jungles and mysterious Bedouins and Englishmen too dumb to stay out of trouble but too powerful to ever really be in it, belongs more to the colonial satire of Evelyn Waugh than late-'70s art rock. (Bowie said that African Night Flight in particular was inspired by a trip to Kenya where he met a bunch of old German pilots who seemed to spend most of their time getting drunk and the rest doing profitable crime in the bush.) Lodgers aren't heavenly beings; they're people with enough money to rent a room.
All this didn't just humanise Bowie, it made him whole. By the time he'd released Lodger, he was thirty-two, halfway divorced and trying to keep his drug thing in check, rich and famous and still staring down the long rest of his life. "Radical genius" would be nice, but so would making it to 1985 and having people still remember your name. In that sense, Lodger is an anxious, humble album, the sound of an artist ceding the wheel to a younger generation he'd be a fool to pretend he was part of. To let the culture take him out and chauffeur him for a little while.
Of course, he still had plenty to offer and spent the next thirty years offering it: The music videos, the generous celebrity, room-unifying songs like Modern Love and movies like Labyrinth, which introduced hundreds of thousands of '80s babies to Bowie the mischievous goblin king, prancing around in his tights. Stars might look pretty while they fall but all they leave when they hit earth is a big empty hole. Lodger is the moment when Bowie took a deep breath and started to fill it.