We foreclose on reality prematurely, Karim. Our minds are richer and wilder than we ever imagine.
Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.
In a field/I am the absence/of field.
This is/always the case.
Wherever I am/I am what is missing.
Mark Strand, “Keeping Things Whole.”
It’s six minutes, twenty nine seconds long. Its first minute is a slow fade-in of sounds that remain faded. What seems like a woman’s voice but isn’t appears, mixed so low that it’s merely a faint suggestion of a voice, as if you hear someone singing in another apartment. In the right channel, there’s a string (or synth) loop that repeats a croaking phrase every four bars, if there are such things as bars in such an inchoate song. There’s static. The static is a tangible thing: a smear of crackling, buzzing sound, which swathes all of the other ghost sounds in a loose blanket. A trickle of piano, quickly silenced. Deep in the mix there’s a ceaseless two-note noise, like the sound of a phone left off the hook, or a signal barely picked up from a radio conning tower.
About 1:15 in, an acoustic guitar appears. Its player toys with the “Buddha of Suburbia” melody (especially around 2:50), but even this proves to be too much ambition. The guitar plays a few notes, some sounded on the high E string, some consonant twangs of the G and B strings; a lonely arpeggio or two; nothing to constitute a melody. Just a note here, another there, succeeded by others, all decaying quickly. Nothing resolves, nothing builds. This is a genetic soup of music; it’s all potential. All you hear are only notes, little impositions of sound, a thumb and a forefinger plucking a taut string. A twitch of a wrist muscle, a whim that hopes the hollow body of the guitar will make something of it.
Nothing much else. Around 2:45, a synthesizer grows more distinct, sounding a bass note, trying to give the track a sense of depth. The piano returns, plays a few trilling notes. A few little synthetic chirps, like automaton birdsong. As the track ends, having never really begun, the background static gains presence. You realize the static has carried a little rhythm all along, a slight chugging 4/4. The voice grows more distinct at last: you can almost make it out. But you can’t. Closing static.
“Ian Fish, U.K. Heir” is, in David Buckley’s words, “intriguingly unlistenable.” It is difficult to concentrate on “Ian Fish” for its entire length: I had to will myself to pay full attention, wearing my headphones and telling the dog to leave the room. When played on speakers, its sounds soon blend into the grumbles and sighs of a house, or get swept away in street noise. It’s meant to blend, to vanish. “Ian Fish” was Bowie playing on the idea of Eno’s “ambient music.” Eno had proposed a music that didn’t “matter,” that had nothing to draw attention to it: music that could be played to lower a room’s temperature or as background music for airports or theaters.
This was a tall order for Bowie, who even at his most abstract still felt compelled to offer melodies and hooks. “Ian Fish” feels like work, a man determined to deny his instincts. It’s Bowie offering nothing but fragments, a few scattered sound pieces that you could try to fashion into a song, but there’s not quite enough to make it work. Bowie had made Buddha of Suburbia out of scraps, taking motifs that he’d written for the BBC serial and dragging them out, slowing them down, reversing them, poking holes in them, filling the holes with other sounds that he’d scurried up. “Ian Fish” is the space between—it could be a backing track of any other Buddha song; it sounds like a tape that Bowie had not quite erased (I believe there’s bits of “The Mysteries” buried in it), a canvas upon which you can see vague traces of scrapped ideas.
There’s one subtle message: the title “Ian Fish, U.K. Heir” is an anagram of “Hanif Kureishi.” Kureishi, the son of a Pakistani immigrant, Bowie’s successor on the streets of Bromley, is cast as the heir to the country that had spawned David Jones. It’ s a sign that Bowie welcomed the changing face of London, and it echoes Bowie’s long-forgotten “London Bye Ta-Ta,” another London immigrant song from a lifetime before.
Recorded June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux.
Addendum written after the morning’s news:
Well, so there’s to be a new album after all! I blame Scott Walker for finally getting Bowie back in the ring (though it seems like this record was made ca. 2011-early 2012.) I look forward to hearing it. Feel free to use the comments for reactions to it, though I ask that a) you save some of your powder for the song entries, likely in spring 2014 and b) don’t neglect the actual song being discussed too much.
Top: “Olga S.,” “Living room, Moscow, 1993.”