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.
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.