How Does the Grass Grow?


How Does the Grass Grow?

The Next Day was conceived and recorded in secrecy and there’s little of the contemporary in it. Supposedly. “We’re not very impressed with today’s music,” Tony Visconti said, in his role as Voice of Bowie in 2013. “We weren’t listening to anything current. It all sounds like it was made by the same person….It could be the same production crew, it could be the same singer, everybody is Auto-Tuned to death and the songs are very flimsy.”

That said, one recent album casts a shadow on Next Day: PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, released on Valentine’s Day 2011, and the heavyweight of its decade so far. At times Harvey goes up country and sends back gnomic reports, other times she sings in a city square. So her piano study White Chalk is countered by Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, a millennial New York album that elegized a New York about to die. (Harvey learned she’d won the Mercury Prize for Stories on 9/11/01, while stuck in a locked-down Washington D.C., watching tanks rumble around near her hotel.)

Let England Shake was another “public” album. Written in 2007-2009 and recorded over five weeks in 2010, its spark came when Harvey learned the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had their official photographers and writers. She wondered if a war could have an official composer. To Drowned in Sound, she said: “My whole thinking around the writing of the record was very much around the idea of ‘if I was appointed the official “song correspondent”, how would I bring the stories home, how would I relay them to people.‘ “(See Wire’s “Reuters“: “sooner or later/the end will arrive…this is your correspondent, running out of tape…”).

With the Bush/Blair wars as her backdrop, Harvey used another generation’s wars for imagery, particularly World War One (one text was Maurice Shadbolt’s Voices of Gallipoli, which inspired two lyrics) and its shorthand: trenches, barbed wire, gas, broken trees, shells, fields of poppies and blood. “In a way, I wanted [my] voice to be quite unobtrusive but just to relay the story,” she said. “Almost like a witness, who is just narrating the stories and bringing them back from the place that they happened.”


A set of love songs between doomed young men and the island for which they’re dying, Let England Shake is choked in sediment, its songs patched with pieces of older songs. The chassis of the great Police break-up song “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” becomes the spine of “The Glorious Land,” where blood makes the grass grow. “The Words That Maketh Murder” winks at “George of the Jungle” (Bush of the Desert) and quotes “Summertime Blues” (Eddie Cochran’s United Nations joke seems sad here—for Cochran, the UN had meant authority, the faraway adult world, a place of prestige and power). “Istanbul, Not Constantinople” plays on xylophone during a lull in a battle. Said El Kurdi, recorded in 1920s Baghdad, wails as if he’s seen what’s coming; a British woman sings counterpoint 90 years later. More ghosts come and go—Niney the Observer‘s “Blood and Fire,” reveille trumpets, Russian folk songs, army chants, sea shanties, gabbled sounds of carnival nights and marching seasons.

Like Bowie, Harvey took her time in writing the album (though doing so in reverse,  first writing the lyrics, then coming up with songs) and she used her reliable small crew of musicians (John Parish and Mick Harvey, with whom she’d worked for decades). And possibly like Bowie, she’d first considered making the record in Berlin but wound up recording it down the street from her home. “[Berlin] was a city I was finding quite interesting at the time and wanted to work there,” she told The Quietus. “But I went over to Berlin and couldn’t find a place that felt right, and then, just coincidentally, the man who runs this church [in Dorset] as an arts centre approached me and said if I ever wanted to use it for rehearsing I could, because he liked my music and knew I lived nearby.”


There are a few Next Day songs in the England Shake mode: songs crammed with old violence, history as haunting. The title track comes to mind, as does the bizarre “How Does the Grass Grow?” whose refrain is the closest Bowie’s come to the cracked sound of “The Laughing Gnome” in decades.

Where Let England Shake was small, portable and sufficient in sound, like an early response to Cameronian austerity (Harvey mainly used her two-man pit crew, each of whom could play any instrument and sing when needed), “How Does the Grass Grow?” is like an overfilled mailbox, with its array of feedback squalls, keyboard lines doubled by vocal dubs, mutters and laughs lurking in the margins of the mix, treated cymbal crashes, organ swells, a great two-note groan of a synth bass hook. The distortion applied to Bowie’s voice in the verses even suggests the bandpass-filtered vocals in Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” (a song also lurking in Bowie’s “Valentine’s Day”).

It likely began as a writing exercise in the Lodger vein, despite Visconti claiming the track “was very different, new-style Bowie.” Bowie started with a refrain from Jerry Lordan’s “Apache” (as performed by the Shadows), keeping the top melody while slightly altering the chords (so Lordan’s F-G-C/Am becomes F#6*-Ab-Bbm). Then he simply reversed the chord sequence to get his verse progression—Bbm-Ab-F#6. The key was a typical Bowie shadow-blend, a gloomy B-flat minor tonality with dreams of escape into D-flat major, giving the song a knotted-up tension that it can’t dispel even in the two guitar solos.

Bowie rewriting “Apache” recalls Iggy Pop’s claim that he and Bowie, on Lust for Life, had taken a bunch of old songs and messed around with them enough so that no one would recognize them anymore. Not quite the case here—Bowie left enough “Apache” in the mix to have to share co-composing credit with the Lordan estate.

The lyric’s some Eastern Europe of Bowie’s imagination: another of his war-bled Warsaws. The backdrop could be Bosnia or Hungary or Ukraine (the “official” Bowie words for the song appear to be “Balkan,” “burial” and “reverse”); the line about the village girls hail from a 1967 essay by Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, describing the Russian village of Zhukovka (“television antennas stick up from the gray, tumbledown roofs and the girls wear nylon blouses and sandals from Hungary. But the grass and birch forest have a sweet smell“). It’s life in the West’s broken mirror, with sandals from a country without a seashore, or wild boys riding cheap Latvian mopeds (the Riga-1 was the first model, ca. 1965, further grounding the song in the Sixties): kids making “a life out of nothing.”

These are minor details: the song mainly harps on sex and death (there’s a trysting place where “we struggled with our guns.”). Bowie sings like a fanatic wielding a megaphone, keeping to a small range of notes, his phrasing in the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” tradition of jamming in as many syllables as he can screw into a set of bars. The singer (a coward, “a white face in prison”) wants to reverse time so that “the girls would fill with blood”: the girls are slaughtered and he wishes he could somehow fill their veins full again, but it’s also a lurid menstrual image. Only the earth survives, its mud absorbing bones and blood and entrails. Blow a hole in the ground, and soon enough grass claims it; mow down a row of trees (which die like Spartans, standing firm in a line) and their corpses feed mosses.

The refrain “how does the grass grow? blood! blood! blood!” came from Bowie reading about military training camp chants. In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, a variation on the line is part of the chant that R. Lee Ermey leads his troops in (see also Johnny Rico’s 2007 Afghanistan memoir Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green.) “It’s about the way the soldiers are trained to kill other soldiers…part of a chant they’re taught as they plunge their bayonets into a dummy,” Visconti said.

Almost three minutes into this loud, claustrophobic track, the tempo slows and a D major bridge begins, the song shaking out of a bad dream. Bowie sings as “Bowie” for the first time, sounding mournful, if a bit removed. Though more ghosts appear—there are hints of “Shadow Man” and “Under Pressure” in the phrasing—there’s a feeling of stolen beauty, a hard-won peace (or at least that a cease-fire’s been called). Then it’s a staircase fall into another guitar solo, more “Apache” refrains and blood chants. Dancing out in A major, hanging on Gail Ann Dorsey’s circular bassline, “How Does the Grass Grow?” ends by unearthing yet another old song: “Boys Keep Swinging.” Remember how that one goes: You can wear a uniform. Other boys check out you out, at least before they take aim at you.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

*The F-sharp chord’s made an F#6 (F#-A#-C#-Eb) because Bowie’s hitting an Eb note when singing over the chord. (A detail noticed by Clifford Slapper, to whom I’m indebted for puzzling out the song and noting the “Boys Keep Swinging” reference). Augmenting chords is central to the track: Gerry Leonard extends B-flat minor chords in the refrains by playing F, G, Ab and G guitar notes that make the underlying Bbms  consecutively, Bbm, Bbm6, Bbm7 and Bbm6. See also the keyboards augmenting D major chords in the bridge (playing A-F#-G#). (Thanks again to Clifford for spotting these.)

Top: Polly Jean Harvey, MBE, 2011; band, church, Dorset; British soldiers in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2011 (Reuters).

41 Responses to How Does the Grass Grow?

  1. Phil Obbard says:

    Another stellar entry — last PJ Harvey record I bought was STORIES… but sounds like there’s another I need to hear. (This will be the 3rd time this blog has gotten me to buy non-Bowie material in the last few months… you should negotiate for commissions. For the rest of you: Chuck Jackson’s “I Keep Forgettin'” is worth far more than $1 Amazon/iTunes will charge you).

    I was just listening to “Grass” on my commute to work today — one of my 2-3 favorites from the LP, both in melody and the evocative set of lyrics. It’s gorgeous. Extra-relevant for the centennial of WWI. And glad to see I’m not the only one who heard the outro bass from “Boys Keep Swinging” here, though I’d assumed until now that it was Visconti reprising his own past…

    • steven says:

      I’m thinking this album is going to be one of the LPs that really benefits from Chris’ song-by-song approach, with the songs having more room to breathe outside the confines of a very, very baggy LP.

    • col1234 says:

      Dorsey’s credited on bass for the track but quite possible TV overdubbed those lines later

  2. gcreptile says:

    For me, it’s the most amorphous song of the album, appropriately placed in the no-man’s-land just before the three final epics. It ends up being less than the sum of its parts. I wonder why it doesn’t end up being as fulfilling as other “cluttered” songs, like Blackout. Maybe it’s because Bowie lost an anarchic spirit with age, or maybe it’s because we know all his tricks now. It sounds a bit as if all the unused ideas for this album were crammed into a single song. I do like the high voice in the bridge, which reminds me of old 60s/70s songs like “Sugar Baby Love” or something like that.

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      This is my favourite track on the album by the length of the Flemington straight (Melbourne Cup reference). It’s just so damn catchy and irresistible, while simultaneously dark and despairing like the best of Bowie’s stuff.
      The lyric is also very poetic, and hangs together really well. And I just love the way the bridge kicks in and takes the song somewhere else altogether for a while. 10 out of 10 for this effort Mr. Bowie.

  3. Patrick says:

    Yes quite Lodgeresque in a way, the almost relentless first part is quite claustrophobic and the relief of the change of tempo welcomed.

    P J Harvey is on of the few consistently excellent artists in music.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Good morning all. I’ve been lurking here for a while and just want to compliment the author on the consistently detailed and thought provoking work. This site continues to reward and I have ordered a copy of your book.

    I’ve been looking forward to The Next Day posts as this was the first Bowie album I could anticipate and grow with alongside everyone else. This track is one of my favorites though I always find the verses so difficult to sing along with and I can never get the rhythm down! The bridge is beautiful and sometimes sounds like it came from a different song but somehow it works. I’m still not sure what to make of the production on this album. This song is fierce and beautiful and somehow sounds like a snowstorm to me.

  5. Mike says:

    My favorite track between Valentine’s Day and You’re So Lonely. The guitar after the first chorus is such a rush.

  6. Galdo says:

    Oh my gosh! I was so surprised to see PJ Harvey covered here. I really love her work, it’s so consistent. I literally listened to ‘Let England Shake’ over 100 times on late 2011/early 2012.She does deserve her own song-by-song coverage blog… Maybe when this blog is finished? (just kidding). About the song, I agree, it kinda gets lost on the album, but that intro always gets my attention. That build-up is kinda strange and I kinda like it. Maybe the best on the weird shit bash. I love that blood chanting too.

  7. ERayLankester says:

    There’s definitely echoes of WW1 in this one, as in ‘Whore’. The lines:

    That’s where we made our tryst and struggled with our guns/ Would you still love me if the clocks could go backwards?/The girls would fill with blood, and the grass will be green again/ Remember the dead, they were so great, some of them…

    seem a heavy allusion to Carol Anne Duffy’s poem on the death of the last surviving ‘Tommys’, ‘Last Post’:

    If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
    that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud …
    but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
    run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
    see lines and lines of British boys rewind
    back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home –
    mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
    not entering the story now
    You lean against a wall,
    your several million lives still possible
    and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
    You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
    If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
    then it would.

    Given it’s delapidated setting, however, ‘Grass’ is a more jaundiced, cynical memorial…the dead aren’t noble, nothing has changed…nor it would it have elseways. The grass keeps growing….

    • col1234 says:

      oh, very nice. Yeah I wouldn’t be shocked if some of that poem got ground up in the lyric.

      also love the dark humor of “remember the dead/they were so great..some of them”

    • s.t. says:

      Yes, the song also makes me think of songs related to Remembrance Day/Poppy Day, with the blood/foliage connection.

    • Chris says:

      Thanks – hadn’t read that before. Duffy’s writing some good work as Poet Laureate.

  8. s.t. says:

    I love this one. The bridge here is the prettiest singing I’ve heard so far from Bowie Redivivus.
    The song is definitely a throwback to Idiot/Lodger stylings, but it’s dark, it’s fun, and it all works.

  9. rufus oculus says:

    Thank God for the Mercury Prize. I usually take a punt on the winner to hear some new music (I gave M People a miss though) and was so rewarded when Polly Harvey won with Let England Shake. It is a masterpiece.

  10. David says:

    I remember reading an interview once where Bowie was asked what he thought upon first arriving in LA, and he said something along the lines of “I wonder how the grass grows?”

    I don’t know if my perception of this song is colored by an early review as the most irritating song on the album. I would actually levy that against ‘You would set the world on fire’, but still, the chorus grates by the second pass,which I imagine was the whole point of driving home the message.

    Oddly, I always attributed the use of Apache as a reference to the genocide of the native American, but reading your blog, and the comments, I see that it places the narrative more firmly with WW1.

    There’s a similar thread on ‘I’d rather be high’ of course, did Bowie carry over his Foyles War into Netflix binge into the sessions I wonder?

    And then the sudden bridge, its so frail and honest, so divorced from the context, and again one can’t help but affix some kind of confessional to the lines ” I gaze in defeat | At the stars in the night | The light in my life burnt away.” Bowie soldiering on regardless of the inevitable void.

  11. Dave L says:

    For me, this is one of the stronger tracks, I love the bridge out of nowhere, and his voice on it, I love the two ripping guitar solos … yes yes, all that is very nice, but these fine aspects are drowning in the BIG IDEAS he’s trying to jam down our throat on this album. Okay we get it DB, our existence is misery, war is hell, all is death and maggots, etc. etc. Jesus one track after the other is absolutely miserable, disgusted with itself. I’m not one who equates “dark” themes with brilliance, I don’t think it’s particularly clever to instruct us in the despair we should all be feeling … but DB clearly does. Bah. Leave that false intellectual crap to Nirvana and the like. So life sucks, is that all you’ve learned in 66 years, David? Really? I call bullshit on that. If I want to feel that life is pointless I’ll listen to Kurt Cobain, who, if he hadn’t painted himself into that nihilistic corner, may have eventually matured and realized how juvenile that way of thinking really is.

    • Michael says:

      Bit harsh.

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      I don’t think Bowie’s ever been nihilistic or an advocate of despair really. Not genuinely anyway.

      I really like this song. It’s pleasingly strange as well as catchy, and then the words are powerful. Plus, they work well written down as well as sung.

      And then ERayLankester throws another cat among the pigeons by identifying an extra dimension to it.

      Once again this blog significantly enhances one’s appreciation of a DB song.

    • King of Oblivion says:

      I don’t find The Next Day nihilistic at all. It doesn’t flinch from depictions of violence and cruelty, but that’s an honest appraisal of life. There’s plenty of redemption and hope peeping between the lines of The Next Day if you pay attention. To me the juvenile approach would be to pretend the world is all sweetness and light.

    • s.t. says:

      Grim and disturbing art is only rarely childish. Usually it’s a way to cope with the darker things that life hands us. It offers catharsis, sometimes life insights. It’s art as therapy rather than as a pleasant escape. Everyone has different ways of living life and dealing with stress, but hopefully you can at least understand why some people might want to use music to confront and deal with unpleasantness.

    • David says:

      I don’t believe that the album is so one dimensional either-I think honestly there is something more nihilistic about ‘Lets Dance’ quite honestly, which I imagine you might have preferred.” Let’s dance | For fear tonight is all” There’s an apathy and anathema there, on a par with the philosophical pessimism of say Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Lets party whilst we annihilate each other.

      No more I believe is the argument against your observation more more evident than in this track, particularly on the bridge.

      “There will be no tomorrow
      Then you sigh in your sleep
      And meaning returns with the day”

      It’s the relief and reflection offered by a new morning, the gift of another day.

      • Dave L says:

        I interpreted the passage differently. It seems to me the song is about a piece of land upon which a horrible massacre occurred, whether in war or some other setting. Now going back a few lines to the start of the “bridge” —

        I gaze in defeat
        At the stars in the night
        The light in my life burnt away
        There will be no tomorrow

        This seems to be a POV accounting of one of the “boys” dying in the “mud”, so that his blood can grow the grass upon which the narrator lives his carefree life, having trysts and whatnot. Then come the next two lines:

        Then you sigh in your sleep
        And meaning returns with the day

        Ah so it wasn’t a POV, just a bad dream, the narrator or someone was dreaming that they were one of the boys who died in the mud of that land, but no, you’re the lucky one, all you do is sigh in your sleep, turnover and you get to live another day, basking in your selfish illusion of happiness.

        This is brutal song and I don’t think that it was earned or really has a point except to scold us as we try to get on with our lives and as Bowie lives in his Manhattan penthouse, reading about medieval England and whatever else catches his fancy and then writing songs about it.

      • Dave L says:

        I agree with your interpretation of Let’s Dance, the song. The album is not among my favorites. Low is probably my favorite because it is the most autobiographical and emotionally honest of his works, I think. Most of Next Day, with the exception of Where are We Now and perhaps a few others, seems like second-hand reportage to me, and not very perceptive at that. I like it musically and really liked almost all of it at first, until I understood what the lyrics meant and then I felt quite disappointed that he had decided to go down such a cynical path.

        My favorite track is probably If You Can See Me, which has a great inventive energy, but I have no idea what he’s singing about and haven’t had the courage to try to figure it out, for fear that it will be another pointlessly grim ranting.

  12. Maj says:

    Well this entry made me think I should finally give PJ a try…

    This is not exactly my favourite song on the album. It goes with the lyrics an imagery but the music is too disharmonious for my taste…the bridge though…lovely innit. Also the first time in the song I can actually clearly hear the words Bowie is singing.

    The guitars are nice throughout though.

    Not a song I listen to often but it’s one of those instances when you admire the technique rather than love the whole.

  13. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Well, the David Bowie Is exhibition finally kicked off here in Melbourne on Thursday, where I went to see the amazing and outrageous Jeff Duff share some of his tales of 40 odd years in the music biz, and perform some Bowie songs. An amusing raconteur, and a powerful singer that boy. I’m looking forward to seeing the exhibition itself this afternoon.
    Chris, you may be interested to know that your fine blog gets a mention on the ACMI website (that’s the Australian Centre For The Moving Image, which is hosting the event.) There’s a link to it on DavidBowie.Com if you want to have a look.

    • col1234 says:

      thanks, Peter. Let me know if you see anything interesting (i imagine the exhibit changes slightly w/each mounting)

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        All up I spent three and a half hours there, taking in all the little details. So much to absorb. Just being so close to all those fabulous costumes by Freddie Buretti and Kansai Yamamoto that I was denied seeing all those years ago because Ziggy never came down under was quite awe-inspiring in itself. I was strongly tempted to reach out and touch them, but resisted the urge for fear of being thrown out.
        Other highlights? Lots of little things, like a hand-written note from Marlene Dietrich expressing disappointment that they didn’t get to meet on set, and suggesting a chance to meet up elsewhere. I wonder if they ever did? A few of David’s paintings from his time in Berlin, including two portraits of Iggy Pop (the famous blue head, and walking in the snow.) Finally, the video component throughout was fantastic. Not just the music videos, but the way that early scenes from his Beckenham days morphed and merged fluidly from bedroom to train compartment like a constantly flowing river.

  14. Love this song! Really caught my ear when I first listened to it, and I just KNEW I heard that refrain vocal melody from somewhere else. I gotta say, the ending of this song remind me of Blur a bit (those synth sounds totally sound like a choice of Albarn or Coxon to me). But if this song calls back to “Boys Keep Swinging” then it all comes full circle in a way, huh? The bridge as well, so good!

  15. MC says:

    I found this song really off-putting the first time I heard it, but it really grew on me. I think it’s of a piece with other “difficult” DB songs like Scream Like A Baby and A Small Plot Of Land. The wonderful thing about TND is the space it gives Bowie to be discordant and ruffle feathers in a way he hasn’t since the Earthling period. I would agree that his stance here and in other songs is not mere nihilism but something more like righteous anger.

    I felt TND’s connection to Let England Shake as well. Thanks for the tribute to PJ Harvey, btw. LES is a great album, but The Last Living Rose is a stone-cold masterpiece.

  16. steven says:

    Bit late to this but I remembered that PJ did an amazing version of the title track on Marr, with a very bemused Gordon Brown looking on. May be of interest.

    Different to the album version, with an interpolated Lads sample:

  17. Momus says:

    1. It’s become almost a truism of this blog that more effort often seems to have gone into Chris’ posts about Bowie songs than the songs themselves; for most of his career, Bowie has had a firm belief in spontaneity and immediacy, boasting that he can knock an album out “in two weeks, mixed and everything”.

    2. The thing that takes time when you’re writing a book is research. Songs don’t tend to feature the same kind of painstaking data-gathering, but as Bowie has aged he’s become more cautious and considered, moving from his body to his head, from Dionysus to Apollo. How Does The Grass Grow feels very mature in that sense; careful Granta-style writing about war.

    3. I’m quite shocked that I’ve basically killfiled this song since buying the album. I suppose it’s another dimension of the flexible “bagginess” of records now that we cherry-pick what we want to go back and listen to. This wasn’t on my list, I think because I find the frippertronics-style guitar a bit too proggy. The words on their own are good (and I love that we’ve traced them to a possible source in a Carol Ann Duffy poem), but when you listen they’re a bit of a rushed jumble. I like the mid-section, anyway.

    4. Weirdly enough, this feels to me like one of the better (ie more laboured and effortful and arty) tracks on Let’s Dance, like Ricochet. The bluesy middle guitar solo is very Stevie Ray Vaughan, and sits oddly between the sub-Fripp bookends. The whole thing feels a bit Pro-Tooled as a result.

    5. And that’s what Dionysus Bowie worked fast in order to avoid. Mistakes and anomalies were better than polish and too much pondering. Energy was eternal delight, in the Blakean phrase. Pure sexual energy and charm rushes out of early Bowie material (often counterpoised nicely against decay and apocalypse), but this later stuff just has a lot of spleen and bile. The sex-decay formula has tilted.

    6. I like this swerve into the song via PJ Harvey, similar to that excellently withering line: “David Bowie was alive and well in the mid-Eighties. Her name was Kate Bush”. When I listen to Polly’s song The Words That Maketh Murder I instantly know where she’s coming from, politically and aesthetically. I can hear the Wicker Man soundtrack in her folk idioms, and I know that she knows that Paul Giovanni was a gay city-dwelling American basically faking Scottish folksongs, and that it doesn’t matter a hoot: folk is there to be faked, and filched.

    7. But I don’t really know where Bowie is coming from with this Granta-style pop-prog song. The Apache reference is interesting, but it’s way before (even) my time. The 13 years that separate Bowie’s age from mine really do make a vast difference: Elvis means almost nothing to me, I never heard Tubby the Tuba, never saw Newley’s TV show, have hardly even heard Buddy Holly (I only learned about the connection between Peggy Sue Got Married and Ashes to Ashes via this blog).

    8. Possibly because I have so little to say about this song, I want to say something else, something about why I can connect to Polly and not HDTGG. I think there are artists who “set our watches” and change things forever, and Bowie is certainly one of them. But there’ve been others after him, art-pop avatars like Bjork and Tricky. I can hear Polly as “post-Bjork” in some way, but of course Bowie can’t really be “post-Bjork”. And although he was very supportive of Tricky, there’s no evidence in his music of being “post-Tricky”. After a certain age, to turn such corners becomes undignified (like “going drum’n’bass” when you’re 50) and you get to be, if you’re lucky, the corner others turned. You consolidate your corner, your place in history.

    9. There’s something about The Next Day that troubles me, and I think it’s tied up with this “anxiety of self-influence” thing. Shinily-produced though it is, the record feels out of step with the times, stylistically a bit confused. There are so many references back to the time when Bowie was “the corner we all turned”, but they’re half-remembered, quoted, and sometimes misquoted. Like, would Fripp and Stevie Ray Vaughan have been playing on the same song? It sounds wrong.

    10. This rather laboured “mature” songwriting, with its research and its spleen, makes me think of the books Bowie has threatened to write in the last decade or so. There was one called Bowie Object, a coffee-table exercise apparently inspired by Neil MacGregor’s History of The World in 100 Objects (a pre-V&A self-museumification, if you like, since MacGregor’s objects were all from the British Museum). Then there was a novel about the Suffragettes, which Bowie said he was making endless research notes for. Literary agents avidly pursued this manuscript, but it was never forthcoming. Sometimes too much research (too much head and too little *head*, if you see what I mean) can sap creative energy: the watched grass never grows.

    • col1234 says:

      “more effort often seems to have gone into Chris’ posts about Bowie songs than the songs themselves.” LOL. probably true.

      came very close to reusing the Kate Bush line with PJ.

      • Stolen Guitar says:

        I’ll second that notion, Momus, Chris’s research far outstrips most of the late period work in terms of effort and inspiration.

        I haven’t always agreed with your perspectives on this forum but you’ve absolutely captured what I’ve, thus far, been unable to elucidate about my relationship to late Bowie works. I know you’re only specifically referring to TND here but I think you’re ‘turning corners analogy’ (ie that he should have been content to allow others to turn ‘his’ corners for him) applies to a great deal of his post 70s output.

        Bowie’s been extremely fortunate that the generation that controls today’s media was the one that he so significantly affected. Of course, you can argue that he had to do that in the first place and that certainly was the case, but surely some of his lesser, inferior work wouldn’t even have gotten off the ground, let alone been venerated by work such as Chris’s here?
        Rust never sleeps, and sometimes I think it would have been better for Bowie to have been more Rotten (not Lydon!) than Jagger and McCartney (longevity wise, not creatively).

        That said, I was as pleased as everyone else here, and in the wider world, with the surprise that WAWN comprised on that January morning. I guess I can’t suspend my disbelief for the prerequisite period, though, and this song doesn’t move me as much as the writing ‘around it’ does.

        Love the PJ Harvey Kate Bush quote, and ‘Hounds of Love’ is one of the greater records to have emerged from the 80s; Bowie didn’t make a record during that period that could even come close to it (not counting 1980’s Scary Monsters, of course).

        And as for Harvey, herself, I’m mystified; she’s too shrill for my taste and lacking in range and variety, especially when compared to her template, Nick Cave and his peerless Bad Seeds, whose majestic aural range is unmatched by any of their contemporaries. She seems a veritable one-trick pony in comparison to either them or Bush.

        Thanks, once again, for the education and illumination. Can’t even listen to StationtoStation anymore without hearing and seeing previously unknown sounds and shapes!

  18. roobin101 says:

    I’ve come to terms with this song a bit more since listening to it again. I know what put me off to begin with. The synths are naff beyond belief, very distracting. Three quarters of the way into a tiring album I can’t hack that sort of stuff. It sounds much better on its own.

  19. tarff26 says:

    My favourite song from The Next Day, by quite some distance. Love the frenetic pace, the phrasing in the first two verses (especially the line ‘Would you still love me if the clocks coukd go backwards’). Something about it takes me back to his late 70’s experiments with Iggy Pop, hunched over a keyboard onstage.

    Can’t say I care much for the bridge, though it’s probably a needed respite from the relentless energy of the song up til then.

    TND for me has a near fatal mid album slump starting with If You Can See Me, and HDTGG stops the rot in spectacular fashion.

    Re: the Object Bowie book mentioned in the post above by Momus, that was a well known hoax/joke, right?

  20. fantailfan says:

    You did it again… been looking at Let England Shake for about four years now, finally bought it after watching some of the ‘videos’ linked here. Ten years ago I tried to like Dry and Rid of Me, but I was force-feeding myself early 90s and, like most of the music from that period, they are now gone from my collection. Let England Shake is different; I think Waterboys, Kinks, Jane Siberry (especially). Let England Shake is now in my favorite 55 albums (or will be in November).
    I’m really trying to like The Next Day _as an album_ but I feel that Bowie’s trying too hard.. or maybe there’s a better way to express the feeling I get when I want to stop listening half way through the album, wanting something less processed and crammed.

  21. dm says:

    This and I’d Rather Be High are so excellent, lyrically. The vocal performances on both also excite me. But the arrangements (more so in High) are utterly bland. I can listen through them, but I’m not surprised that others give up

  22. fantailfan says:

    The inscrutable iTunes Genius:
    Based on “The Words That Maketh Murder” – P J Harvey
    1. “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” – Arcade Fire
    2. “Gloria” – Patti Smith
    3. “You and Whose Army?” – Radiohead
    4. “Hounds of Love” – Kate Bush
    5. “The Next Day” – David Bowie
    6. “She’s Lost Control” – Joy Division
    7. “I Bleed” – Pixies
    8. “Teen Age Riot” – Sonic Youth

    The thing you have to realize is, that I have very few post-2000 songs in my iPod, about 360 out of over 17,000 songs. I don’t know how iTunes does their Genius algorithm, but it does seem uncanny at times.

  23. Brian says:

    This is my favorite song on TND. Brilliant instrumentals, lyrics, and vocal performance. I absolutely love the guitar on this song (which is apparently the work of David Torn) and have found myself revisiting this song as often as I do earlier Bowie classics. The Ya ya ya ya’s got me singing along aloud (which I don’t do very often with songs) and as a result this was the first song on the album I’ve remembered all the lyrics of.

  24. I’d read this as “Heroes” pt 2 — looking back in shame/regret over what transpired in the years after “we kissed as though nothing could fall.” The singer having chosen to be “safer” after telling her “you better not stay.”

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