God Bless the Girl

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God Bless the Girl.

For nearly a year, Bowie toyed with where to place “God Bless The Girl” (called “Gospel” until late in The Next Day sessions), moving the track up and down in the album sequence until he finally cut it, reserving it as a disc-closing bonus track for the album’s Japanese release. It was a little thank-you to a country with which he’d had a long working relationship (and also, and probably not coincidentally, a country where people still buy CDs.)

Like many in the US, UK and Europe, I first heard “God Bless the Girl” as a YouTube upload, where some guy who’d bought the Japanese issue recorded the track playing on his stereo. Yet another moment of global community created by Bowie’s merchandising stratagems.

Cutting “God Bless the Girl” and “So She,” among the more buoyant-sounding tracks that Bowie recorded in the period, made the climate of The Next Day ever more wintry. In keeping with Bowie’s frame of using past styles as templates for new songs, “God Bless the Girl” drew on Young Americans and “Underground,” with Bowie creating a “gospel” chorus of himself, Janice Pendarvis and Gail Ann Dorsey, and devoting the track’s last minute to their increasingly complex vocal arrangements.

Most of the players were overdubbed late in the sessions, suggesting that “God Bless the Girl” went through a number of shape-shifts in the studio (with perhaps Gerry Leonard’s ominous atmospheric guitar a holdover from an earlier incarnation): Morgan Visconti (son of Tony) plays the crisp Bo Diddley-esque riff on acoustic guitar, Henry Hey gets a brief piano solo, and the spare rhythm section (mostly Tony Levin’s Chapman stick and Zachary Alford’s kick drum and toms in the verses) is livened up by the percussionist Alex Alexander on woodblocks and tambourine. It’s structurally sparse as well: a long intro, a pair of verses in rising C major progressions, a rising A minor refrain, an intro recapitulation/piano solo, and a curtailed third verse that cuts into a refrain that’s elongated into a coda.

Is it an ode to a social worker or a nun, someone who’s quietly let down by the great gap between the promise of heaven and shabby life on earth? Or, in a parallel to the scenario Flora Sigismondi filmed for the “Next Day” video, is it the life of the “holy” prostitute Jackie (“her work is love…God has given me a job”) who’s trapped in a prison of her own devising, with some Christian imagery and even a nursery rhyme reference (Jackie sits in her corner). There’s the mystery of the reoccurring line there is no other—a rock-solid assurance of God’s existence, and a flat statement that there is no God. The Gnostic image of being “a slave without chains,” and the sense of entropy, of things running down—all movements in the refrain lyric are declines (wine becomes water; spring, winter; light, darkness), and as Bowie sings near the fade out: years pass so swiftly. Old songs are buried in the track, as they always are with Bowie—the brutes of “Funtime” turn up to close the refrains, with Bowie singing “I don’t wanna hurt you, just wanna have some fun” but sounding as if his fun requires her pain.

Bowie works to make “God Bless The Girl” unreadable. Take his stylized singing in the refrains, where he lands hard on each opening syllable, digs into the “ay” sounds, and repeats “treasure treasure” like a nervous tic, but his voice is still aching for deliverance, for purpose, for something other than the world. Or the vocal chorus, especially in the polyphonic coda where Pendarvis and Dorsey parry against their other voices, which falls in the line of “Underground” and “Young Americans”: it’s a collective jubilant celebration of one lonely, doomed man.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 14 March 2013 on The Next Day‘s Japanese issue, and later on The Next Day: Extra.

Top: Satoshi Ohki, “A Nocturnal Tokyo,” 2012.

32 Responses to God Bless the Girl

  1. Galdo says:

    It’s baffling how one of the best tracks on this era got slotted only as a b-side. About the meaning, I always thought this song as a social statement than anything. I really like a lot, and I always think Jackie character was made (even the name) to be very likeable.

  2. Patrick says:

    Pretty much all the other add-on tracks for TND did little for me but I was seduced by the opening chords of this from first hearing. It should have replaced one of the weaker tracks on the initial LP release. My only reservation is , while short, it seems to fill or fizzle out more aimlessly towards the end in a slightly anti-climatic way. However something about this musically that suggests it could have come from Aladdin Sane. With that riff and his arrangement skills I wonder what Mick Ronson would have made of it ? We’ll never know.

  3. Bob Whiting says:

    Add me to those who loved this and wonder why it never made the full album. It’s a really nice song. I’d read somewhere that ‘Jackie’ is in fact Jackie Kennedy. But I don’t really see any comparisons in the lyrics. Maybe it’s the ‘Jackie’ wonderfully sung by Scott Walker and Brel? Or maybe in a swerve it’s about the late Jackie Collins? “Jackie loves her work” after all…

    • Maj says:

      Well, Brel’s Jackie is about himself. So that won’t be it.

      Chris: I’ve seen the name in this song spelled as Jacqui online…which is a bit weird but can we rule it out completely that it actually isn’t the way Bowie intended her name to be spelled?

      • col1234 says:

        good point Maj–i’ve seen that spelling too but I don’t think there’s an official lyric sheet for the song. Is it in the Extra CD booklet? (I just have the latter in digital form)

      • sunray jahchild says:

        Spelt Jackie in the lyric booklet (‘language’) in TND EXTRA box

  4. MC says:

    Great as TND is for me, there’s no question that it would have benefited from the inclusion of this – a great track. I suppose it may have been deemed a poor fit with the other songs, but think how great it would have sounded after I’d Rather Be High, in place of the insomnia cure that is Boss Of Me.

  5. mrbelm says:

    I’ve always heard this one as a somber cousin to “Panic In Detroit.”

  6. RB says:

    This is a terrific post/review. Very well done. Also, good commenter point on the Panic in Detroit/Bo Diddley Shuffle throwback. I’ll add that the piano line at the end also wound up at the end on the title track on Reflektor, probably just a weird coincidence given that Bowie doesn’t really actually play anything anymore. But the woman working in this song also is a double entendre. It’s entirely ALSO about watching his daughter–make that daughters–grow up in his own self-absorbed shadow. “The years past so swiftly. . . .” is left hanging. All great Bowie songs are also a little bit about himself. And this is one of them. It should be used for a soundtrack, and maybe someday it will be.

  7. RB says:

    “. . . actually doesn’t play much of anything. . . . ” Sorry.

  8. billter says:

    I feel totally meh about this song. Don’t dislike it, but can live very easily without it. I think Chris is getting all these middling songs out of the way to close strong with “Valentine’s Day,” “Heat,” maybe “Dirty Boys.” I look forward to those, but then again it means the end of the blog, and how will I keep myself entertained after that?

  9. Dave L says:

    I’ve tried to like this one since it seems so well regarded by many commenters here … and there is a lot to like. Garry Leonard’s guitar, the tight acoustic guitar, the whole set up is great … but when he gets to the chorus, it suddenly turns into a Madonna song circa “Like a Prayer.”

    This would make a very good Madonna song, wouldn’t it? She could have a whole stage full of choir singers, clad in robes, clapping alongside her on the next Grammys telecast, as they chant the chorus … Well maybe 30 years ago.

  10. John Morgan says:

    Beautifully written.

  11. crayontocrayon says:

    If this had been the follow up single to Where are we now I’m sure it would have been more of a hit than any of the other subsequent singles. But it didn’t quite fit the ‘Bowie still has an edgy sound’ narrative.

    It’s a great pop chorus made to sound even bigger by the simple and sparse verse. When the piano and hand-claps hit towards the end it’s hard not to love.

  12. roobin101 says:

    It’s a bit of an odd lash up. I’m a sucker for Edge guitar so I love the opening. The chorus is OK, perhaps if it didn’t have the backing vocals then it would make sense. However:

    “I don’t want to hurt you/I just want to have some fun…”

    I don’t think Prince has really featured at all in this survey. Is it odd or not that their paths never really crossed?

  13. David says:

    I see this track as another revision-an attempt at trying to undo what was done on Underground. When Bowie re-released an updated ‘Time Will Crawl’-in 2008, his admission at the time was if only he could do the whole album again. I believe he went further, peppering tracks on The Next Day with chords from past songs he felt less than happy with.

    He once called him self ‘the ultimate recycler’ and on evidence of God Bless the Girl-as Chris noted-there’s the resounding chorus from the 86 soundtrack title bubbling beneath. Except as with I’ll take you there (Beat of your Drum), and You will set the World on Fire (Bang Bang), there is not much of a lyric to hang it to. Its merely cyclic and hollow, a little less than a nod to the Material ‘Girl’ for nabbing the chorus of Underground for ‘Like a Prayer’, and veering off into a cliche of lost narrative, and self reference. The repeated refrain o ‘Love is lost, lost is love even re-emerges as …’Loves her work, and her work is love’.

    Lennon once said something along the lines of write a lyric and put a back-beat to it, and In the case of this, and the other songs Bowie cannibalized from his own back catalog, I rather wish he had.

    That said, I think it was right to be included as just a bonus track, and I think both the intro and outro is lovely.

    Again the writing on this blog stellar

  14. s.t. says:

    He likely was indeed going for the sound of “Underground,” but it ends up sounding like a fusion of “Magic Dance” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” Sure is catchy though.

    I wish that The Next Day had been completely free of retro-80’s anthems, so while God-Girl is clearly the best of the bunch, it’s just fine as a single or extra track.

    • Bowietiedaddy says:

      Please, more retro-80’s anthems like this and I rather be high. Bowie could have made a great Never let me down sequel. I would have loved that. Another great single thrown away as a bonus track.

  15. Maj says:

    Great song. If pretty depressing.

    Not that I have a solid idea what it’s actually about…and I’m somehow pleased to see neither does Chris.😉

    Or rather apart from the title I don’t see much religion in this, sort of sounded to me like a “tale” abt the abuse or even rape of some sort of lonely, hard working spinster (or a religious prostitute…yeah. a spinster or a prostitute…take your pick). Pretty flipping grim.

    Music-wise though…a great song, one of this last era’s best.

  16. cansorian says:

    While I like God Bless the Girl and think it could have easily replaced any of the songs on the middle of the second half of TND to much better effect, I always think of it as Panic In Detroit’s less exciting cousin. It’s got the same Bo Diddley-isms up front, same female soul singers as vocal foils, same extended outro, but while it’s actually about 15 seconds shorter than PID it seems to drag on for much longer. As a famous Bowie scholar once noted of Panic In Detroit’s coda, “After Bowie’s last lines, Ronson and the rest of the band descend into madness.” Ronson’s unhinged guitar playing, the tribal percussion, and the wailing female vocals really give you the sense that Detroit has descended into utter chaos. You get the feeling that if it went on for any longer the record would rise up and kill your turntable. On the other hand, the coda of God Bless the Girl never really reaches that terminal ecstatic liftoff that I associate with great gospel music, it just seems to drag on past it’s welcome.

    It’s that lack of madness in the musicianship that pretty much defines my problem this song in particular and with most of The Next Day in general. Everyone’s playing is just too polite and respectful. As much as I found Reeves Gabrels’ playing to be hit or miss (a hit on Outside, a miss on most everything else) at least he had the good sense for the occasional bout of bad taste. So while Bowie’s going for a bit of brutality with the lyrics, all I’m getting from the music is well-mannered tea party.

    More lunacy please.

  17. dm says:

    This is a sweet but hollow confection. Which is fine, only I think it’s one of Bowie’s most unlistenable vocal performances since God Only Knows. A bouncy, gospel inflected thing like this needs a sharper, cleaner vocal style than Bowie can muster at this stage. He sounds like he’s singing through treacle.

    I do like, it, but I also understand why he didn’t put it on the album proper. Also I hate these cliched sainted sex worker lyrical tropes, when people started writing them they were patronising at best, now they’re just tired and dull.

  18. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Since the Japanese download version of TND didn’t contain this song, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest the decision to release it as a Japan-only item was more to do with the still active market for CDs than any lingering sentiment.

    Unfortunately, the song for me is another that makes me realize how lucky we were when vinyl only allowed up to 20 minutes per side.

  19. Michael says:

    It’s a fine song. The verse works better than the chorus perhaps, but the words are much more interesting than sex worker cliche. That may be a reference point but the words are more opaque than many of the TND songs ‘proper’ and quite unsettling in their mixture of regret, longing and threat. The way he sings them accentuates this – the stress within ‘some fun’ for example. He does different voices for a reason.

  20. Dave says:

    One of my favourite track. lighter than the rest. It lets some air in. Sadly Bowie leaves another great track on the cutting floor. on a japanese bonus, it’s quite the same to me.

  21. Deanna says:

    I find this song boring… But I do like how clear the vocals are.
    It’s of a few songs on TND that I get mixed up with each other, and I think that’s a sign that I don’t find it memorable at all.

  22. stowe says:

    Late to comment, as I am with most.
    It’s possibly one of the last Bowie songs, with a character who is suffering. I thought it was about a prostitute back in 2013, now I’m not so sure, but I think it is a very good lyric and one of my fave TND songs.
    I guess the cream rises to the top, and I’ve played this a lot.

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