You Feel So Lonely You Could Die

lonel

You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.

Like many Bowie songs of this century, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is burdened with those of the previous one. Bowie impressed a songbook into service here: verses have the flavor of Leonard Cohen’s beaten warhorse “Hallelujah,” while its title comes from “Heartbreak Hotel.” (Elvis, on this album, is like a watermark on a set of press photos.) Bowie pillages his own stores, too. “Rock and Roll Suicide” is in the guitar figure (the song’s the first Bowie waltz in decades), “The Supermen” in the vocal arrangement; the outro slightly varies the drum pattern of “Five Years,” a reference so obvious that every reviewer felt compelled to note it. (And now I do.)

It’s thick enough to make you choke. In “You Feel So Lonely…,” sequenced as the near-last word of The Next Day, Bowie calls up old spies, broken assignations, outsourced torture, shabby political killings (“the assassin’s needle” calls to mind the murder of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, dispatched by poisoned umbrella tip). It’s a powerless reckoning, a harping on history (“Russian history,” Tony Visconti specified) that’s been crated up and shipped off, leaving him to pick at dried wounds. It’s galling how much has been gotten away with. All Bowie can hope is that the creep in his sights (a traitor, a sell-out, like an old lover who once worked for the Stasi, or maybe it just felt like it) will one day have the guts to dispatch himself (or herself). (The “official” words for this song are “Traitor,” “Urban” and “Comeuppance.”)

There’s also a sense that the song’s target doesn’t know, or care, how much hate they’ve bred over the years, how much purchase they’ve had on the singer’s imagination. No one ever saw you, Bowie begins, recounting the creep leaving notes in a park somewhere (a fan on Bowie Wonderworld speculated whether this local news story was an inspiration). But not even he saw it at the time: so much of this diatribe is a man making war against his imagination. Oblivion will own you! he cries, though he’s the one who’s most keeping the hated figure alive. He can hope for justice all he wants, whether via rifles, ropes or ricin, or that his hated object is finally stuck in a room somewhere with a mirror. But if justice comes, he’ll lose the light he’s orbiting around.

As always, look for the joke in the curse, like the pissy moan that “people don’t LIKE you” (sung after Bowie’s already called for the hangrope), or the chord sequence of D!-E!-A!-D! while he moans his final “die-ie-ie-ieee” to close out refrains. Momus once argued (and perhaps will argue again) that it’s a possible dig at Morrissey, more revenge for Morrissey stealing “Rock and Roll Suicide” for “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” (“vile rewards for you” is very Moz). And of course, the charges of being a sneak, a vampire and a thief have been leveled against the singer as much as anyone.

What makes the track is the ironic righteousness of Bowie’s lead vocal, one of his most gorgeously sustained performances. Over crabbed chord progressions in a George Harrison vein,* the arrangement is a communal recreation of “classic” Bowie, if through a distorted mirror. DB paces things on his 12-string acoustic, Visconti has a string quartet play keyboard lines and vocal hooks, Gail Ann Dorsey and Janice Pendarvis offer blissful curses. A beautiful ode to, as Lady Stardust sang so many years ago, darkness and disgrace.

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

* See Harrison’s “Long Long Long” (also a waltz) for a similar slowly-descending IV-iii-ii progression (found in Harrison’s refrain (Bb/Am/Gm) and in Bowie’s verse (G/F#m/Em, “leaving slips of paper, somewhere..”), though Bowie moves to the vi chord (Bm, “in the park”) before going home to D, where Harrison gets home via the dominant (C)).

Top: Osamu Kaneko, “Tokyo,” 2012.

46 Responses to You Feel So Lonely You Could Die

  1. SoooTrypticon says:

    Lovely write up, as usual (:

    What are your thoughts on this song’s connections to the “Informer” from the bonus tracks?

    When I first heard that track, (Informer), I wondered if Bowie might be writing a musical, (hah!), or if perhaps “The Next Day” began life as a few different projects… A musical. A retro album. A handful of songs on doomed historical figures.

    I love this album, and like many, have made my own playlist- but some songs do seem more connected to each other than usual for a Bowie album…

    • verdelay says:

      I agree that certain tracks coalesce together beautifully (or, rather, balefully) on this record. My own ‘playlist’ (actually, I consider it MY official album!) is constructed around the emergent themes of violent death, abhorrent self-justification, pitiful nostalgia and graceless aging. A kind of nihilistic gnosticism, a fuck you finger at a faux-benevolent God. In my book, the perfect Late Bowie record (the track listing is posted around here somewhere)

      • SoooTrypticon says:

        That’s sort of the wonder of the album. It’s a Cronenberg object- a “faceless product” that can be spliced and reordered to satisfy a listener’s most of the moment Bowie needs. I think Chris hit it on the head there.

        My playlist, (for now):

        -The Next Day
        -God Bless The Girl
        -Valentine’s Day
        -Like A Rocket Man
        -Dirty Boys
        -Born In A UFO
        -If You Can See Me
        -So She
        -The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
        -Love Is Lost
        -Where Are We Now?
        -I’ll Take You There
        -The Informer
        -Heat

  2. Freddy W says:

    I refresh my browser constantly (on various devices) to check for a new post on this blog, and every time one comes up I’m thrilled by it.

    As far as Cohen similarities go, I’d say the verses on this one chime more with “Night Comes On” than “Hallelujah”(unless its just the waltz time fooling me). I plan on giving this song a bit more time than I had previously, I think its positioning on The Next Day buried it a bit.

  3. Phil Obbard says:

    For me, the absolute highlight of the disc, and one of Bowie’s greatest ever. When he hits that “Some night on a thrill-less street” line, and the strings swell up behind him… that is some serious, prime David Bowie right there, and it sends a tingle down my spine every single time.

  4. billter says:

    This song makes my very short list of post-1980 songs that could legitimately lay claim to a place on a single-volume Bowie best-of. This the Bowie I love: dramatic and grandiose, somehow transforming the darkest possible material into something transcendent.

    Though the “R&R Suicide,” “Supermen,” and “Five Years” references are all clearly there, in the final analysis this reminds me most of “Big Brother.” If Brother was an “ecstatic submission to power” (sez COL), this is hatred as a religious experience.

    When I first heard it my first thought was of Osama bin Laden. I imagine that this song was written before he was killed, when as far as we knew he was bunkered in a cave somewhere. This seems a little on the nose for Mr. Bowie, but maybe that was one factor feeding in to the lyrics.

    Great choice on the photo, BTW.

  5. Anonymous says:

    As you somewhat suggest, I honestly think the song is about Morrissey and Bowie’s “relationship” with him that went wrong. Musically and lyrically I hear many echoes of his work in there. It’s a really great song whatever.

    • billter says:

      This may be so, but I find it hard to believe that Bowie would go so far out of his way just to dis Morrissey. It seems beneath him.

      • AB says:

        He already did it with Madonna on ‘Lucy Can’t Dance’ and Gary Numan on ‘Teenage Wildlife’. Bowie hung around old school theatre and drag queens. He knows how to be a Queen Bitch.

        That being said, if it is about Morrissey, then Electronic’s ‘Disappointed’ and Pet Shop Boy’s ‘Miserablism’ are both better Morrissey Disses than this one.

  6. dm says:

    That lyric really gives me the shivers, and the vocals are gorgeous. I love the angry, bitter, nasty songs on this album- it’s a mode that suits his voice in its current condition.

    My theory about the Five Years beat is that it’s supposed to resemble playing Ziggy on repeat (rock n roll suicide ends and we skip back to track one), it’s a joke more than anything, but one which always makes me smile.

  7. gcreptile says:

    As I wrote before, a pretty obvious attempt of Bowie to create one last great hymn, and almost succeeding. It’s probably too embedded in Bowie’s musical universe to stand out enough to be that, but a pleasant addition nonetheless. I also hear some ‘Everyone Says Hi!’ and the “No one ever saw you” reminds me of “Joe the Lion”. It’s probably not even intentional on Bowie’s side, but unavoidable in a 40-year-long career.
    The song also misses the dramatic third act à la Rock’n’Roll Suicide’s “You’re not alone!”, so it ends up being a little too bleak.

  8. Maj says:

    Take this waltz, take this waltz
    It’s yours now. It’s all that there is

    Not that these two songs have much in common, other than the waltz form, but when I saw the new entry and started reading, Cohen decided to have a party in my head instead of Bowie.

    You Feel…is a great song, even if it wouldn’t squeeze into my TND top 3.
    Can’t quite decide if the outro isn’t a self-referential joke gone a bit too far for my taste but hey, his song, his career…whatever.

    • Me Tagomi says:

      I agree. That Five Years reference feels like too much self reference for my liking. ,(Although I love that theory from DM that’s it’s supposed to resemble the Ziggy Stardust album on repeat.)

      As I’ve expressed elsewhere, I prefer to try to listen to his later stuff without burdening it with thoughts of whether it’s as good as early stuff, mainly because the early stuff has decades of resonance going for it that any new work obviously can’t have. So I’m not totally comfortable with these invitations on his own part for people to do just that.

  9. James says:

    Great write up. One of his best since Heathen.

  10. I haven’t listened to The Next Day for at least a few months so it’s interesting to revisit it along with these entries.
    Didn’t think much of this one when I first heard it, but it’s slowly been growing on me. With many of the songs on the album I find the lyrics fascinating. The Cohen comparison is spot on.

    Musically to me it seems to be at odds with Heat for the final track. Either song works as a closer. In my mind at least, You Feel is the “end” of the album with Heat serving as an epilogue.

  11. David says:

    I think the suggested Morrissey snipe is a misnomer, I don’t believe for an instant that he would inhabit Bowie’s ire, beyond mild irritation, let alone bequeathing an entire composition to him.

    One of the 42 words he did use to describe The Next Day however was ‘Comeuppance’, which certainly could be used in reference of this track.

    If it isn’t Morrissey, who is it then?

    Consider the lines…
    ‘A room of blood history.You made sure of that.’

    Or even…
    ‘I can read you like a book.’

    Which book-Backstage Passes-is it another vented spleen against Angie, or even Defries who was due to publish his memoirs but was stymied?

    • SoooTrypticon says:

      I got a whiff of Mark Chapman, haunting Central Park. But similar to the Morrissey connection, I’m not sure Bowie would so easily pin a song to any one person.

      Some of my favorite lyrics of his are just that because the meaning is fluid. Many people and no one.

      • Roger L says:

        I get the sense of MDC as well. The reference to stealing ” …their moon, their sun” recalls Instant Karma (he didn’t mention “stars,” but that’s another song on the album) and also, items across the universe, which references back to Bowie’s cover of same, and that DB collaborated with Lennon on that particular record.

        That being said, the sense of a lonely NY, of a silent gun in the park and the title, “So Lonely You Could Die…” which conjures “Yer Blues” in its plaintive repeats, makes me think Bowie is closer to home than Russia here. Again, a slippery topic that speaks to what you said before, of violent death (snipers?), graceless aging, and the sad price of fame.

        Keep up the great work.

        Roger

    • King of Oblivion says:

      dunno.. Angie seems too pathetic these days to bother with the poison pen treatment. And DeFries has lost $30 million in the last decade (wikipedia)… punishment enough!

  12. billter says:

    I’ve been thinking more about this song’s relationship with “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” The latter’s message was “You may think you’re alone in the world, but you’re not. There are others out there who will understand you–you may not know them yet, but they exist.” The newer song’s message is “In case you were wondering whether you’re alone in the world…yes, you are. People don’t like you and they all wish you would die.” (Shades of “Pug Nosed Face.”)

    It’s rather depressing when you think about it. And yet you actually listen to the song, and somehow it ends up feeling inspirational. One thing Bowie has always done better than anyone else is deliver the bad news in a painless, even uplifting, way. There’s no one from whom I’d rather hear that we only have five years left to cry in.

  13. s.t. says:

    “Elvis, on this album, is like a watermark on a set of press photos”

    And this song leads right into “Heat,” which conjures Scott Walker’s “Jesse” as much as “The Electrician.”

    “Jesse” featured Elvis as its narrator and a zombified guitar quote from Jailhouse Rock. So on “Heat,’ Elvis is a ghost’s shadow on a photo watermark.

    • dm says:

      I find the Electrician comparisons fairly off. The Electrician is all about the dynamics and structure. That sudden soaring vocal turn and orchestration puncturing the cool dread of the verse.

      Heat is definitely far more of a Climate of Hunter thing, right down to that rubbery bass tone.

  14. Momus says:

    1. I somewhat renounce my previous view that this song is about Morrissey, though it may partly be about him. The title is Morrisseyesque, and the Five Years quote in the coda recapitulates the Rock’n’Roll Suicide quote (notably removed in the Bowie cover) at the end of Morrissey’s I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday. In fact, this song could also be called I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday. But instead of “finding love” or “receiving one’s due”, the “it” in question here is something much more grim and certain: death and, with it, comeuppance, which is to say karmic retribution for sins in the addressee’s life.

    2. Who could it be about, if not Morrissey? Perhaps there’s a bit of Stalin in there, the line about “bloody history” evokes the 20 million deaths Martin Amis’ 2002 book Koba the Dread lays at Stalin’s feet. Amis and Hitchens (who fell out over Koba, but soon mended their friendship) both feature on the list of 100 Books that Bowie issued in 2013. Stalin died in 1953.

    3. Musically, this song takes us to the 1950s. It’s a big Johnnie-Ray-style torch ballad in 3/4 time, and if it reminds us of certain Leonard Cohen songs, it’s because he was also (notably with Phil Spector, who also took John Lennon back to the 50s) evoking those torch ballads. But Morrissey is still in the frame, because Morrissey emerged — James Dean fetish to the fore — in a 1980s strangely in thrall to the 1950s, presided over by a fading 50s film star.

    4. I’ve noted before that Bowie’s return to the 1950s, with Let’s Dance, may have been a way to pull rank on the New Romantics with their synths. Modernism meant continuous forward movement, but Bowie pulled a Postmodernist move in 1983 and revived a past style. But, in doing that, Bowie positioned himself to be upstaged by a 1980s 1950s fan even more dedicated than himself: Morrissey (born in 1959, so really only able to construct the era from old films and records). The two attempted to combine forces and tribes in the early 90s, but became cultic rivals.

    5. Morrissey certainly worked hard for his comeuppance, declaring in 2004 (to Bowie fan Jonathan Ross) that “Bowie’s a business, you know. He’s not really a person. I could tell you stories, and you’d never listen to Let’s Dance again.” Or (to GQ magazine): “Bowie is not the person he was. Now he gives people what he thinks will make them happy and they’re yawning their heads off. And by doing that, he is not relevant. He was only relevant by accident.” There’s also a diss in the Importance of Being Morrissey documentary: Bowie was once exciting and important “but not now”.

    6. In 2013, the zings were apparently still stinging. When Morrissey proposed to relaunch an old single with an image of Bowie and himself together (taken by his old friend Linder Sterling), Bowie leaned on EMI to forbid the move, even if he didn’t have any legal rights over the photo.

    7. You can very well imagine the lyric’s “airless rooms” and “slips of paper” and “people don’t like you” and “I can hear you moaning in your room” to be Morrissey-directed. In fact, I’ve talked myself back into it: there’s no way this song is about Stalin or anyone else. It has to be about Morrissey. The grey, rainy concrete city is Manchester. There’s an allusion to Ian Curtis hanging himself, and a “see if I care” if Morrissey follows suit.

    8. “I can read you like a book” is surely an allusion to the autobiography Morrissey was writing at the time. First announced in 2002, the book in 2009 gained the art world’s imprimatur (something Bowie values rather highly) when Tate St Ives published an extract in a compendium entitled The Dark Monarch: Magic & Modernity in British Art. By 2011 (when, Chris tells us, this song was laid down) Morrissey was telling interviewers that he’d finished his memoir and was looking for a publisher. The book arrived in late 2013, an instant Penguin Classic and instant bestseller to boot.

    9. I imagine Bowie must have wondered what Morrissey would say about him, and about their falling out. Would he make good on his threat on the Ross show that “I could tell you stories, and you’d never listen to Let’s Dance again”? If so, a preemptive strike on Morrissey’s credibility was in order. In fact, when Autobiography came out it was fairly reverent. Okay, it said Bowie “feeds on the blood of living mammals” — that, in other words, he isn’t a vegetarian — but it also called him (in his 70s heyday) an “inexplicably liberating reformer… a Wildean visionary about to re-mold England”.

    10. In early 2014 Morrissey revealed that he’d attempted to talk Bowie into recording a duet with him, a cover of The Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, a Phil Spector production from 1965. The duet never happened, but losing the loving feeling seems to be an ongoing success on both sides.

    • Sky- Possessing Spider says:

      Have you heard the latest about Morrissey? Apparently he’s thinking of putting in a formal complaint against a security guard at San Francisco airport who allegedly groped his penis.
      Personally I thought the old queen would enjoy the attention.

      • Steven S says:

        Some classic homophobia mixed in with your joke about sexual violence there – nice!

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        Steady on Steven, it was, just as you say, a joke.

      • Steven S says:

        Yeah, “old queens” are game for anything, and if they complain tell them they should “enjoy the attention” – nice one, haha.

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        -sigh-okay Steven, if you’re going not going to let this go, all I can say is I’m no homophobe. In fact, I’m a proponent of legalizing gay marriage here in Australia. It was just a dig at Morrissey for his nastiness towards my hero more than anything. No offence okay?

      • Steven S says:

        Eh, you’ve misunderstood how life works – your general opinions there in Australia are irrelevant. You made a moronic joke. That you’re not a moron most of the time in your everyday life doesn’t make the joke less moronic. That’s all!

  15. Mike says:

    “Like many Bowie songs of this century, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is burdened with those of the previous one.”

    I initially LOL’d when I read this, but now I’m depressed by it.

    P.S.: Morrissey’s so vain that he probably thinks this song is about him….but that seems like a big stretch to me.

  16. MC says:

    Now this track is especially effective heard in the context of the album proper, as the climax before the brooding closer. It’s all the more powerful given Db’s vocal performance, the only song on TND where he really belts it out.

    Great analysis, btw. My usual practice with albums is to listen to them several times before I get around to reading the lyrics, so it took me a while to realize how nasty YFSLYCD is. Indeed, the first few times I heard it, I took the song to be another inspirational anthem a la Rock and Roll Suicide (or, yes, I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday). Then the lines like “I can see you as a corpse” jump out. I suppose the sheer strength of the performance overwhelmed the words for me at first – in complete agreement with Billter on how the track feels.

    As much as I like the Moz theory, I find it more likely that the vitriol is directed at some historical figure, as opposed to someone who personally wronged Bowie. I find the lyric somewhat abstracted, without the nudge-nudge hints you get in things like Lennon’s How Do You Sleep? (or Lucy Can’t Dance, for that matter).

  17. Elijah says:

    My theory was this was about Morrissey, but I would throw another name into the hat: Angie.
    The 5 years intro and all that…

  18. Deanna says:

    It seems a bit…tired if the song’s about Angie. That’s too obvious and the lyrics would be overkill. No, I don’t think it’s about her.

    For some reason, I don’t really care who the song’s about. I usually love to know the backstory to songs–especially Bowie songs–but I don’t feel that here. It’s a good song to listen to when you’re brooding about something, and maybe best to apply your own personalized meaning. That goes for Rock ‘N Roll Suicide, too.

    I like the track. It doesn’t change my life or anything, but it’s a solid tune.

    • michael says:

      I also don’t need it to be about anyone specific and am happy with the indeterminate echoes of Elvis, Morrissey etc. The five years coda is interesting though, not just as a self-reference, but emphasising the difference between the two songs. In five years, ‘we’ are facing it together. Here, there’s no community, just an ‘I’ accusing a ‘you’. Although the you turning out to be a mirror (nothing has changed) would be one of the oldest tricks in the book.

  19. John Riordan says:

    In addition to all the other musical ghosts that Chris identifies I think that there’s a hint of Elton John’s Your Song on this one. Whenever it gets to ‘And I’m gonna tell, yes I’ve gotta tell…’ I always think it’s toying with the idea of turning down Elton’s friendlier street: ‘I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words…’

    • billter says:

      “…how horrible life is while you’re in the world.”

      I would never in a million years have made that connection, but now I won’t be able to get it out of my head.

  20. I think its a cold war spy story, and is part of a general pattern of sorting through and reckoning with the 20th Century. The object of the song dies because he’s alone, as in he isn’t protected anymore, giving the lyric from HH a very literal turn.

  21. andyf67 says:

    The great man’s passing has forced me back into the details of his work. During another sleepless night it came to me, the closing drum routine from the Five years intro must simply mean ‘You feel so lonely you could die leads’ into Five years thematically?

    • ig says:

      Now it’s seems more obvious. The speaker in this song is Bowie’s alter ego, or his “little voice”, tormenting him for his decisions in life, making him feeling guilty before his nearing death. The next song, last song on the album, Heat, is following suit. Oblivion shall own you..
      I think the Five Years beat is a hint of his own demise. this song’s backing tracks were recorded on May, 2011.

  22. Brian says:

    This is one of my favorite songs on the album, but god damn my opinion of it changed once I finally noticed that -tin tin tin tin- going on in the background of the song. It’s just too distracting to me and I wish I could go back to how I heard the song before I noticed it. ‘You will Set the World on Fire’ has a similar annoying sound with its Christmas bells playing that can’t be unnoticed once heard.

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