If You Can See Me


If You Can See Me.

“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).

Top: Nikola Tamindzic, “SS1,” from his series “Interbeing.” See you next month, Nikola. (Again, October 17 in NYC.)

44 Responses to If You Can See Me

  1. Dave L says:

    Fascinating stuff in this write-up, thanks. For me this is the most exciting, experimental track on the album. Hearkens back to his form-twisting experiments on Lodger, Scary Monsters and even “Dancing with the Big Boys” from Tonight. He’s working on an idea and pushing things as far as they can go.

    It builds and builds until the track suddenly ends, with the final sounds of the track (what is that, a cello?) reminding me of a bullfrog mating call on a pond. Good stuff, Bowie.

  2. Nick says:

    I really like this track. I particularly like the lyric that goes:

    “A fear of rear windows and swinging doors”

    Partly because the rear windows bit just reminds me of the anxious, coked out Bowie in the back of the car in Cracked Actor. With sirens all around, he nervously sniffs…

    Secondly because of the swinging door reference which reminds me of My Death. Of course, Brel’s original lyrics for My Death were “My death is like a swinging door” – signifying a passage between this world and the next.

    It actually led me to think about death for a bit and about other “door” lyrics in Bowie’s back catalogue (where “door” could perhaps be a euphemism for passing over from this world to the next):

    “I’m stepping through the door” — Space Oddity

    “Leave my shoes, and door unlocked I might just slip away” — Bewlay Brothers

    “The door to dreams was closed” — Time

    “In the cellar of a church with the door ajar” — Candidate

    “And the girl next door” — Everyone Says Hi (a fantastic song about death)

    “Don’t let me know when you’re opening the door. Stab me in the dark, let me disappear” — Bring Me The Disco King

    “There’s a crack in the door” — The Informer

    Just going back to Bring Me the Disco King for a second. There’s a wonderful part at the end of the video that follows where Bowie says with a knowing, mischievous surety: “…you hear all these sounds that have just emerged since we started talking about the supernatural? That’s the sound of death … that’s what it sounds like when you’re dead … doors opening.”

    And, going back to Space Oddity… it’s funny how the line “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do” kind of links with “But whatever lies behind the door there is nothing much to do…”.

    Finally, there’s an image by Jimmy King taken in the studio during The Next Day sessions(?) which is a very clever image. Not only does the clever angle make it look like David is holding a Dr Evil effigy (one of the words Bowie chose to describe TND) but if you look closely at the door you’ll see a faint skeleton there… like time, waiting in the wings.

    PS: not sure if my links are going to embed. Apologies if you have to cut and paste.

    • Christopher Williams says:

      Blummin’ eck! You’re right! (Re. the JImmy King pic)

    • Matt says:

      “Life is like a broken arrow, memory a swingin’ door” – Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)

    • Dave L says:

      Or from Battle of Britain (the letter): Don’t be so forlorn,
      it’s just the payoff
      It’s the rain before the storm
      On a better day, I’ll take you by the hand
      And I’ll walk you through the doors

      There is also the connection to The Doors – they both covered Moon of Alabama. Bowie was probably pissed they took that band name before he did. Though as a solo act, he could have gone with “The Door.”

    • steven says:

      oh wow the door. did they put that there digitally?

  3. Mike says:

    Here’s a song I never liked … but now want to check out with new ears. This is why I love your work.

  4. roobin101 says:

    I really DON’T this song. If it led to Sue/Tis A Pity… then it was perhaps no bad thing. It may be because Bowie was trying to recreate the sound of communally-produced music in cloistered conditions but it may be those dreadful synths. There’s a lot of really invasive keyboard sounds on this album.

  5. Paul O says:

    Definitely points to “‘Tis a Pity,” not so much to “Sue” for me. But I’m a fan of all three tracks.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Is really Gail Ann Dorsey singing the vocal intro? I thought it was Bono.

  7. David says:

    Yes the apocalyptic vagaries of 1Outside, Man Who sold, Five Years and Diamond Dogs are all in attendance, but this one has a blacker soul, a buzzing, crawling feeling of imminent dread running through it, perhaps even a doomsday song for the ages and listening to it, I get images of the inquisitions of Torquemada married to the Orwellian manifestos of the NSA, the mass Exodus of War of Worlds and the smiting fury of Gods, Gail wailing like a banshee recalling the finest moments of Dead Man Walking.

    It also invokes another lyric for me-‘if I close one eye, the people on that side can’t see me’ from When I’m five. The innocent sweet naivety stripped from the bones to a cold, clammy, sense of paranoia-a don’t look now moment of terrible clarity.

    It’s another song rich in imagery without being anchored to linearity, except clearly abhors the collective superficiality’s of modernity -‘these bairns’ the spiritually bereft upstarts,plundering the world ‘in there excitement for tomorrow’

    It’s not that long ago that Bowie was one of those he vilifies. Is this some kind of reproach then? A tally for the distraction of conceit for shoes and dresses over the dark primal forces that came into being plotting to reduce everything to ashes whilst children swarmed to beacons-the ‘stars’.

    Whatever the meaning, its both sinister and compelling.

  8. Mr Tagomi says:

    This is one of the few songs where I get much beyond whether I like it or not. I find this one particularly fascinating, and it’s firmly one of my top two or three favourites on this album.

    In fact, it’s one of my top Bowie songs on any album.

    Partly I lovee it because the shifts of time signature give the words a tumbling relentlessness, and the words are so evocative yet so hard to pin down. They put me in mind of some sort of blasted heath scenario.

    The line that hits me hardest is the one about children swarming like thousands of bugs.

    I kind of feel that the song is a cousin of both Ricochet and Ever-Circling Skeletal Family. There seems to be a shadow of the former in If You Can See Me, in its cadences or harmonics or something. I’m not analytically competent enough to be able to figure it out.

    But whereas the shifting metre in Ever-Circling Skeletal Family seems to arise organically from some sort of mad improvisation, there’s a kind of schematic quality to the pattern of time signatures on IYCSM. Makes me wonder whether the words arose from the music or the other way around.

    My suspicion is that DB’s team of crack collaborators devised the orderly scheme of metres from Bowie’s initial tumble of words.

  9. Christopher Williams says:

    As ever this forces me to listen again.
    By the way have you noticed how many Bowie songs have just the two verses? Man Who Sold The World, Changes, Life On Mars, Starman, Lady Stardust, All the Young Dudes, Aladdin Sane, Always Crashing In the Same Car, Soul Love, Moonage Daydream, Slip Away, Where Are We Now . . .

  10. s.t. says:

    It’s the most blatantly prog-rock that Bowie has ever got. My first impression was “Look Back in Anger as covered by Magma.” Was it meant to be edgy? I’m not sure. I can respect how repellently gaudy it all is, especially that audacious intro…but I can’t actually enjoy listening to it. And this coming from a guy who loves Bish Bosch.

  11. THAT anonymous guy... says:

    One of my favorites from TND– probably my favorite, actually. Maybe it’s contrived, or Bowie trying to be Outside Bowie, or whatever, but it’s one of the few that make me perk up. It’s less “dad rock” than most of the tracks (by the way, I listen to alot of dad rock.) But I definitely dig Bowie’s thorn track. My personal take on it– when I hear it, it always reminds me of that creature in Pan’s Labyrinth that has its eyes on its fingers. It can only see you if you touch the feast at the table (as I remember) and then, you become the feast for it. And, all the little shoes of all the many children it’s eaten. It’s a terrifying track, and jazzfunky as hell. The groaning bass. Zach Alford superior to Sterling Campbell. I personally think this is one of Bowie’s more evocative tracks and conceptually exciting, versatile. The nursery rhyme quality could be anything you apply to it. It’s an “of the moment” and “all moments” song all at once. Terror and power constantly stalk the earth. Sometimes it’s you. It might be unpleasant (whatever it’s about) but it’s tearing its way off the album in a way that the others just seem polite, and a bit mannered, stately. Not sure I want to go through another Outside catharsis, but, if it did yield Sue/Pity then I say yeah! Great write-up by The col1234, maybe he doesn’t know what Bowie’s going on about, either, but great analysis and propositions. I especially like the opening lines about it being a “scarecrow” track. Makes me think of a line he wrote about “making rhymes out of shadows.” That’s some of what I tune into PAOTD for. O’Leary, quit your day job. It’s better on the night shift. Fuckin’ ART, man. Dispatches from O’Leary’s (none to) spare time. Our lonely reporter out in Bowie space.

    • col1234 says:

      if you pay my mortgage, health insurance and electric bill every month, I’ll quit my day job, dude

    • Dave L says:

      ” it always reminds me of that creature in Pan’s Labyrinth that has its eyes on its fingers. It can only see you if you touch the feast at the table (as I remember) and then, you become the feast for it. And, all the little shoes of all the many children it’s eaten. ”

      Oh I think you may have nailed it. So many of Bowie’s songs have film/movie inspiration — something discussed on this blog somewhere … and also on TND, I think The Informer sprang from a viewing of In Bruges …

      • Maj says:

        if The Informer really was inspired by In Bruges, then I have to change my opinion of the lyrics (which wasn’t very high before..).

  12. THAT anonymous guy... says:

    oooh oooh, side note… if i COULD support your creative endeavors, i mean full-time, all expenses paid, dream-world stuff— what WOULD you write about (assuming this was a patron thing and you didn’t just run off and over-tan in Aruba or whatever)…? curious… my gig would be psychedelic sound happenings (or some such nonsense)… if Chris O’Leary spit in Jesse Helms’ eye, WHAT WOULD IT BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE…? if you don’t mind (us) asking…

  13. Great review as always. A personal favourite this track.

  14. Mike F says:

    This is good. It’s not perfect but there’s a sense of urgency here that’s missing on a lot of TND.

  15. Deanna says:

    One of my favourite Bowie songs! It was one of the first I latched on to after finding his music, and the intensity of it really stood out to me. It sounds like somebody is frantically running across a city.

    The opening vocal used to really puzzle me before I learned who Gail Ann Dorsey was and listened to all of her solo work. When I was new to Bowie, I had this weird idea that it him, perhaps a re-used track from back when he could hit high notes. I’m not sure why I thought that or why it mattered, but that’s what I thought every time I heard the song.

    • Deanna says:

      *”that it was him”. I accidentally hit post comment before I was done 😦

      I never thought to compare this to Outside, but it makes a lot of sense. And anything reminiscent of that album is Bowie at his best, not using the rock song cookie-cutter he pulled out for “Dancing Out In Space” and the like. No, these types of songs never feel like he’s trying to fill a quota and I find that particularly wonderful.

  16. Maj says:

    Oh I really like this one.
    My favourite part is Bowie getting all Biblical towards the end.

  17. Galdo says:

    Funny thing is I never related this song to the Leon/Outside material (even though I like both pieces of work a lot), but it really makes sense now. I always like the derangement in the vocals, keep growing more and more manic till it all collapses in a moment of relief. Gail Ann Dorsey vocals are amazing too.

  18. Brendan O'Lear says:

    As a mixed-up teenager in 1977, I purchased “Heroes” the single, Pretty Vacant and … Fanfare for the Common Man by ELP on the same day. After playing the last of those, especially the b-side, I had a real “Oh what have you done?” moment. I’ve never been able to share this shameful secret until now; I’ve tried to erase the experience from my memory. So why is that this song brings it all flooding back? Oh, what have you done, indeed?

  19. gcreptile says:

    Thanks! As a bridge between Outside and Earthling to Tis a Pity, this song works for me. I couldn’t figure it out before.

  20. Galdo says:

    It seems we have a new song after the 2014 singles…

  21. MC says:

    Great piece on a fantastic track, a real grower. Would have been a terrific side-closer in the LP era. I always saw it as an extension of the proggy tendencies on Outside as well, though for me, with its crazed forward motion, and the manic exuberance of the vocals, it betters things like Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty) by leaps and bounds.

  22. Brian says:

    “MC: it betters things like Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty) by leaps and bounds.”

    Not in the slightest, I love this song but Voyuer is one of the best and most underrated songs of his latter career. As for this song, it’s probably my 3rd favorite after ‘Lonely’ and ‘Grass’. Probably the biggest candidate in my eyes for being covered by Blackstars’ crew, they could probably make this one even better.

  23. leonoutside says:

    The entire lyric to TND album was printed as a full page ad in “The Times” (UK paper). Done to the same design as the Barnbrook album art. This version of the lyric sheet has no coma between the words Ana and Fantastic. So reads as Ana Fantastic. Ana Fantastic, is Ana Garcia, a Prince acolyte, that he kept, from a tender age on his compound. “Your old red dress” Prince wrote a track about Ana’s pink cashmere coat. “Meet me across the river” could well be in reference to secret assignations across the Mississippi / Minnesota rivers. “Children Swarm” teenagers coming to concerts? “Bairns wave their fists at God”. Young ones worshipping their stars….And well, so the story goes…everywhere, from all sides, and all in fear, and excitement, greed and theft.

  24. Dara Wyer says:

    For me, the lyric reads as the scattered thoughts of the devil, with his full intent being declaimed in the last verse. The title (and last line) is a variation on the line “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” (from The Usual Suspects) and Bowie’s challenge to the listener to identify the protagonist in the song.
    It is a beautiful, dark song with Bowie providing some arresting imagery through the lyrics. I love it.

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