A Better Future


A Better Future.
A Better Future (live, 2002).
A Better Future (Air remix).

Maudlin and petulant, “A Better Future” is yet another Bowie conversation with God on Heathen. Here he treats God as a girlfriend who’s disappointed him of late; he’s even considering ditching the relationship unless God gets his act together.

In one of his more bizarre revisits, Bowie referenced a verse of his never-released “Miss Peculiar (How Lucky You Are)” in the bridge of “A Better Future.”* “Miss Peculiar” was something of Bowie’s attempt at “Under My Thumb” (it was offered to Tom Jones): when you walk, you follow: two steps behind! Its ghost, turning up a generation later, turned the tables: now it’s a man resenting that he’s under God’s thumb: When you talk, we talk, too (or “to you”).

What bred this irritation? Fatherhood and terrorism, it seemed. “I had rosy expectations for the 21st Century, I really did,” Bowie told the Observer in 2002. “The whole idea was lifting my spirits quite a lot during 1998 and 1999. But it has become something other that what I expected it to be. And it’s obviously a pretty typical parental concern to wonder what type of a world you have brought your child into.

So “A Better Future” was meant as a plea “to whoever that higher spirit is…because I want a place where my daughter can grow up safely, walking open-eyed into her ambitions—not having to dodge bullets.”

Built over a ceaseless three-chord progression in A-flat (Ab-Bbm-Eb), “A Better Future” is a run of verse/refrains interrupted by a bridge. There’s a singsong lead vocal, doubled at times down an octave; a synthesizer hook that seems a mild reworking of the descending vocal tag from “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” The drum loop isn’t much; the guitars are better, both David Torn’s clouds and gales and the raucous, often stereo-scoped acoustic guitar (Bowie, most likely) that hustles through the track.

It’s Bowie at his most sincere, seemingly (see the opening lines of the third verse), but you can’t be that sure: there’s a sense he knows how ridiculous he’s being, that prayer is nothing more than a refined act of solipsism, and that he’s really got nothing to bargain with. It’s a man going all in with a pair of deuces. The sudden appearance of “Heathen“-esque loftiness in the bridge (“down therrrrre below/nothing is moooooooviiiiiiing“) offers a cameo by an indifferent God.

L’Avenir Postlude

There’s a little film that’s haunted me for a long time: Louis Lumière’s Repas de Bébé, one of the first Lumière films, shot in 1895. On an idyllic spring afternoon in France, an infant is fed and doted over by Lumière and his wife. Lumière was rich: this child, unlike a great many French infants in 1895, lacked for nothing. And what a marvelous world she stood to inherit! Her birth nearly coincided with those of the telephone and the motion picture, the airplane and the phonograph; she would be part of the first 20th Century generation. Would that we all could have had her future.

But that child, Andrée Lumière, was twenty years old in 1914. She likely lost friends and possibly lovers to the World War. She would die in 1918 in the global influenza pandemic that killed nearly as many as the war did. And had she lived, she would have been 40 years old in the depths of the Depression. Forty-six when the Nazis tromped through Paris.

By contrast, take a child born in the middle of World War II, in Nazi-occupied Paris. What sort of future does she have? Why bother having children? But Françoise Hardy grows up in a world of free higher education, nearly-full employment and general prosperity, which in turn creates a global pop music boom, to which she contributes. Today she’s 70, having lived through some of the brightest years for common people in the entire history of France.

So complain to the almighty all you’d like: having kids has always been a crapshoot.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen. The Air remix was included on the 2-disc version of the album; the SACD cut lopped off 15 seconds.

*He’d already recycled its coda in “Revolutionary Song.”

Top: Michael Schmidt, from series Irgendwo, 2001-2004.

29 Responses to A Better Future

  1. humanizingthevacuum says:

    This one, on the other hand, works. It’s the choice of cadence.

  2. crayontocrayon says:

    I like it but it’s not a patch on Sunday or Heathen(The Rays). The verse just seems a bit lightweight in comparison. The bridge is great, though the ‘nothing is moving’ line has a very similar melody to ‘You say you’ll leave me’ from ‘The Rays’.

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      I have a particular liking for “When we talk, we talk to you/When we walk, we walk to you”.

      (Have always assumed that’s what the words are.)

      Just think it’s a very neat encapsulation of a particular idea.

      I too think the bridge is the best bit, but it confuses me a little because the narrative perspective seems to shift halfway through it.

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        The “woo-hoo” after “Nothing is moving” surely has a specific meaning too.

        An indifferent god pleased when mankind finally snuffs it?

        But as I said above, the lyric doesn’t really seem to add up completely.

  3. dm says:

    This one seems to get a lot of hate, but I adore it.

    “Petulant” is exactly the right word, from Lennon to Hanna, petulance in music is always appealing to me. Lashing out hopelessly and expectantly at a shitty world, empty protest with a sense of entitlement.

  4. John S. says:

    I like this. I always thought that this was a sarcastic comment about people’s sense of entitlement, not a harsh comment but more of a weary resignation about the way the world works.

  5. Maj says:

    Love this song. And I like how straight-forward it is, lyrically. Sincere but in a “who am I, but a mere ant” sort of way. And yeah, I enjoy the music, the production. A good bellow from Bowie is always good.

  6. s.t. says:

    I like this one too, but very much appreciate your filmic riposte to the song’s sentiment.

    This is like the line from “Seven” extended to a whole song:
    “The gods forgot they made me; so I forgot them too.”

    Almost cute in its petulance.

  7. s.t. says:

    Also, I can’t help it, but whenever I hear the line “give my children sunny smiles,” I hear “sunny smells,” and think back to when I was working at the now defunct Tower Records in ’02, and smelling the horrid funk of sun-baked skin oils as customers would come into the store on a hot summer day. Dear God, rid this earth of sunny smells!

    • col1234 says:

      compared to other typical smells of a New York City summer, I’d be okay with the suntan lotion/BO. There are oh so many worse options.

      • s.t. says:

        Well, suntan lotion hides it well enough. It’s the lack thereof that packs a punch. But yes, I’m just now getting used to the many smells of the NYC summer.

  8. SoooTrypticon says:

    I like this one too. The “walk to you” bit is a favorite. I agree, it’s always nice to hear him sing out. The remix by Air is one of the better Bowie remixes I’d say.

  9. Momus says:

    1. I agree with John S that the singsong voice feels like a persona adopted to mock (affectionately) a sense of entitlement. The voice conjures a person we might call “Jonesy”, a rather humble South London comedy character like the uncool one in the Blue Jean film.

    2. The twinkling synth melody at the start and the perky rhythm of the vocal remind me of the Christmas song Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly, which in turn suggests to me that we’re dealing with a narrator who in some sense still believes in Santa — still believes that he might get what he wants for Christmas, even if that’s nothing less than world peace and goodwill to all men.

    3. I want to think of this song as a wassail, the Christmassy ritual that Wikipedia defines as “a traditional ceremony that involves singing and drinking the health of trees in the hopes that they might better thrive”. To wassail is therefore to want, vociferously, a better future.

    4. In the Just William books there’s a character called Violet-Elizabeth Bott, the spoiled and lisping millionaire’s daughter who tries to get what she wants by threatening to “thcweam and thcweam and thcweam ’til I’m thick”. The character in this song, with his threats to stop loving and needing, is a bit like Miss Bott.

    5. He’s also related to the fellow in Fantastic Voyage who threatens to “never say anything nice again”, should the world “turn to erosion” and missiles be fired. In both cases, the irony is created by the difference in scale: of COURSE you’ll never say anything nice again, you bloody fool, you’ll be dead, along with everyone else!

    6. But of course that’s where the pathos comes from: the contrast between us, with our silly tiny threats, and them, with their global depressions and their nuclear arsenals. These pathetic yet sympathetic figures in their ironic songs tend to emerge at historic turning points: 1979 and 2001 were both dates that seemed to swing the world on scary hinges.

    7. Whatever “you” is (the world, life, the system, God), what does it mean to bargain with this entity by threatening to stop loving and needing it? It means that the naive person singing believes the system (or God, of whatever) gives a tinker’s cuss about being loved, when it can rule just as well with fear or compulsion.

    8. And anyway, if you need something it’s hardly a realistic bargaining stance to say you’re going to just stop needing it. That particular chip — your need — is one the other side can play. You need the system, it doesn’t need you.

    9. David Bowie once said that “tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming”. At the same time, it’s fair to say that no-one in rock has painted the future in such horribly harrowing colours: according to Bowie songs, the future is a place where sex is a distant memory, people sort through “one-inch thoughts”, and corpses rot on the public highway.

    10. Yet it would be cold comfort to have been right about the shittiness of the future only to see one’s own kids consigned to a semi-glamorous decadent dystopia. So let’s thcweam and thcweam until we’re thick.

  10. Patrick says:

    It’s another track that, take away most of the backing , reduced to verse vocals of a nursery rhyme/Syd Barret influenced simplicity , with another arrangement could have come from his late 60s work.

  11. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    A pertinent question here: If the creator entity doesn’t care whether we love it, need it or not, then why are we supposedly condemned to an eternity of Hell if we can’t bring ourselves to worship it???

  12. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    I think you may be onto something there s.t.

  13. MC says:

    This song always reminded me of Buddha Of Suburbia tracks like Dead Against It, with its charmingly synthetic arrangement. Minor but enjoyable, though I think its chief value may lie as a perfect segue from Everyone Says Hi to the grandiose title track. (I believe a commenter said something similar about Brilliant Adventure on Hours, calling it a place-holder of a song.)

  14. Smirkinjudas says:

    The mocking of the self-assuredly entitled religious, flipping off a much-too-ballyhooed, no-show sentient higher power, and some parental concern are palpably intended. The song’s lyrics have consistently made me wonder what he’s meaning but have always left me uncertain.
    Still, Bowie’s clever and emotive vocal delivery is the song’s defining quality. The climactic bridge yowled from above is gorgeous, a sumptuous, affecting Bowie gem.

  15. Ironically, Françoise Hardy these days is a typical old French bourgeoise, known mainly to complain about how taxes make her life impossible.

  16. ge says:

    ….’and how do you like it now, gentlemen?…
    [Hemingway stock quip]

  17. jasager says:

    Imagine the conversational roles reversed: The deity, disgusted with its creation, demands that its children get their act together. It threatens to abandon them, to stop needing them, but at the same time cannot quite let go of its compassion.
    The hymnic, church-choir bridge represents a hypocritical world congregation, sycophants talking the talk, but not really walking the walk… and God comes right back in to shame them for their lack of meaningful action.
    Something desperate in the “Air Remix” version makes this interpretation feel more appropriate to me. Per the original (and apparently correct) interpretation: If Big Sky’s as occupied as the lyric would suggest, it’s not going to care if David Bowie loses his faith; and if Bowie’s abandonment of God is rooted in petulant sulking, then there’s not much pathos there. However, switch it around, and the abandoning/being abandoned dynamic becomes agonizing on both sides.

  18. I’d be very interested to hear some analysis of the Air version, which is probably the only Bowie remix I prefer to the original (though it’s so transformative that it’s hard not to think of it as just an Air song featuring Bowie). The pitch-shifting of the vocals gives them so much more power, and the occasion swerve into robotic modulation adds another layer to the creator/creation dichotomy at the song’s centre. Some part of my brain is convinced that I first heard it while watching Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and even though I know that isn’t true I can’t get the association out of my mind. It’s strange.

    Looking back, the line “How many tears must fall?” also strikes me as an interesting future echo of Blackstar’s “How many times must an angel fall?”

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