Uncut JANUARY 2008 - by Chris Roberts


The Dame's sonic sketchpad - restless, inventive and thrillingly experimental

Generally perceived as the afterthought of the legendary "Berlin Trilogy" (of which, of course, only "Heroes" was fully recorded in Berlin), Lodger deserves a room of its own in the critical pantheon. Low certainly served as creative catharsis for an artist striving to make sense of his own frenetic decade and chaotic fame, while "Heroes" refined its experiments and challenges. The advert of the time famously claimed, "There's old wave, there's new wave, and there's David Bowie", while the music press hailed Bowie's appropriation of Krautrock and electronica, and embrace of Eno's oblique strategies.

Yet 1979's Lodger, which both Bowie and Tony Visconti have conceded was sloppily mixed in a New York studio after being recorded in the superior Mountain in Montreux, has never been granted the love afforded its elder siblings - despite featuring popular favourites like Boys Keep Swinging and D.J. it's plethora of ideas and directions perhaps pull against each other, and the whole isn't as impressive as the parts. In the parts, though, appear strokes of genius that would ultimately prove as influential as almost any other Bowie work. It could be argued that Lodger begat the common adoption of looping and the marriage of world music with Western attitudes. "I never took what would be called world beat to its fruition," Bowie commented, "but things like African Night Flight probably gave Eno the impetus to get on with things like My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts..."

Bowie saw the album as a notebook, a travelogue, a sketchpad of ideas trawling diverse cultures. While Eno's input was by now more motivational than practical, he prompted Bowie's insistence that "mistakes" were opportunities in disguise. Working titles for Lodger included Despite Straight Lines and Planned Accidents. Adrian Belew was asked to improvise without having previously heard tracks. With glorious results. Bowie asked the band to switch instruments with each other for Boys Keep Swinging. Spontaneity was key, takes were few.

For all the looseness of approach - and while most of the backing tracks were put down in late '78 in Switzerland, Bowie left the vocals (and lyrics) until March '79, in New York - it somehow emerges as more, not less, song-based than Low or "Heroes". There's an order to the themes, a conscious intellect in control: nuclear arms are addressed in Fantastic Voyage, spousal abuse in Repetition, capitalism is prodded in the ribs on several numbers. Travel, however, is Lodger's lifeblood.

The impeccably sung Fantastic Voyage, which takes in depression and the missile race, leads on to African Night Flight (a Scott Walker nod) and Move On, where "somewhere there's an ocean / innocent and wild". Yassassin thrives on its myriad culture clashes, and Red Sails, after a wry aside of "boy, I really get around", climaxes in that histrionic refrain of "we're gonna sail to the hinterland!".

The second half is more pop - chilly, modernist, self-mocking pop - but pop nonetheless. Boys Keep Swinging is a tongue-in-cheek, camp dig at American values, and D.J. is a masochistic tale of paranoia, a wilfully bad dance track, woefully misunderstood. An opening like "I've lost my job, incurably ill..." was never going to compete with Moroder.

Perhaps the pinnacle is Look Back In Anger, a thunderous, driving piece of turned-in-on-itself funk-rock, and one of those showy-but-effective vocals that Bowie just nails. After the uncharacteristically domestic grind of Repetition, which finds a frustrated "Johnny" beating up his wife, comes finale Red Money, a beast with a different pulse, and cryptic utterances like "project cancelled" make you wonder if he was announcing the end of the highly productive "European" phase. It's a phase that will always feature Eno large in the credits, but as Visconti has observed: "It amazes me how journalists don't bother to read the album credits. Brian Eno is a great musician... but he was not the producer."

Lodger reached Number 4 in the UK, with Boys Keep Swinging and its ferociously arch video leading the cause. Aware that synth-pop was now infiltrating the charts, Bowie was already, as always, moving on. For his next tricks - Scary Monsters and Ashes To Ashes - he pretty much invented New Romanticism.

Throughout Lodger, the peripatetic pierrot was elegantly shaking off another skin, morphing from Berlin exile to rootless explorer. It's an album that captures the sound of a restless, skittering mind clutching at rhythms and stimuli as they float upriver, picking them up and staring them out with cool élan.