“If You Can See Me” is dead-center in The Next Day‘s original sequence, like a scarecrow meant to send the half-hearted listener packing, with its chromatic chord changes, gear-shifts in meter, aggressive off-kilter top melodies and a lyric gnomic even by Bowie standards. Tony Visconti was struck by Bowie’s writing here, praising the “very wide, beautiful, crunchy jazz chords, with time signatures that Dave Brubeck would be proud of.”
Much of The Next Day reflects earlier periods in Bowie’s creative life—Bowie not sampling himself so much as he’ll “remix” the style of a Scary Monsters or Man Who Sold the World to fit current moods and obsessions. Seen in this light, The Next Day is something of a parallel world’s Bowie greatest hits record—slightly familiar songs as seen darkly through funhouse mirrors.
So “If You Can See Me” (and “Heat”) are the album’s most direct representatives of the Leon/Outside years. Yet where the Leon/Outside tracks were born from a band’s free improvisations, guided by Brian Eno’s “random” suggestions and steered by the likes of Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson, “If You Can See Me” is essentially Bowie, sitting at a keyboard at home, rigging together an Outside song by himself, as if working with memories of old parameters.
The song’s built, as Bowie sings in one verse, as “chutes and ladders….from nowhere to nothing.” The D-flat intro and refrains, in a punishing 5/4 time, slowly climb from an opening G-flat chord to A-flat to B-flat minor until, after briefly losing footing and sliding down to Ab, it finally reaches the peak, resolving hard home on D-flat to end the sequence. This feeling of a desperate upward movement is furthered by Bowie’s phrasing in the refrains, where he sounds as if he’s moving with a great weight on his back, until ending with an exhausted, manically triumphant boast.
And the 4/4 verses are a shaky huddle around F minor, mainly sung over a drum loop and a stabbing keyboard line, with a syncopated bass pattern (with a flatted fifth note) that buttresses an E major chord guitar riff. As Clifford Slapper (who kindly puzzled out the song for me) said, the verses feel “jumpy, nervous, as if dancing on hot coals, before finding brief respite on F minor periodically (e.g., on “and meet me across the river”).” Again, Bowie added to the unsettled harmonic mood with a phrasing in which he’s a contrary force to the bassline hook, mainly keeping to one note, dragging lines across bars.
His lyric has further shades of Outside—hints at ritual sacrifice (“take this knife”) and serial killing (“a love of violence and dread of sighs”). The ghost of Ramona A. Stone walks again (“I should wear your old red dress”—recall “Paddy, who’s been wearing Miranda’s clothes?”), as do older specters—the utopian genocidal Saviour Machine, the dictator of “We Are Hungry Men,” the Führerling Alternative Candidate. (“Identities switch between someone who may be Bowie and a politician,” Visconti said of “If You Can See Me”.) Its last refrain finds Bowie in the ecstatic register of a fanatic, a conqueror or perhaps even God Himself, leveling curses, sacking the towns, threatening annihilation. The last calls of “If you can see me, I can see you“, slowly decreasing in tempo, are like a child-god’s taunts (“crusade, tyrant, domination,” Bowie offered as a précis.) But Bowie has always enjoyed playing villains, as they tend to get the best lines.
Does it all hold together? The production veers all over the place, with Bowie’s chintzy-sounding synthesizer lines getting more prominence in the mix than Zachary Alford’s kinetic drum patterns; Tony Levin is a quagmire foundation (in the brief post-apocalyptic coda, Levin grumbles off into the distance); Gail Ann Dorsey gets her most prominent spot on the album with her whirling vocal intro (shades of Clare Torrey on Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky“) and adds a high ceiling to some of Bowie’s lines. Bowie seems delighted to have managed to set the thing in motion, relishing the rhythm of lines like “American Anna, fantastic Alsatian” and having a blast playing Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds in his last refrain.
Impenetrable, viciously-sung, a strange dark work of labored ambition, “If You Can See Me” wound up being the Next Day track which most hinted at Bowie’s next move, the “Sue”/”Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” single in 2014.
Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.
Again, much thanks owed to Clifford Slapper (this song was a monster to figure out).