As the World Falls Down

January 24, 2012

As the World Falls Down (film).
As the World Falls Down (soundtrack).
As the World Falls Down (single edit, video).

Labyrinth is a schizophrenic film, split between its rite-of-passage metaphor for teenage girls and its garish outer packaging, with puppet dances, Monty Python-style absurdity and post-modernism (the world of Labyrinth is a compost of children’s literature, from Maurice Sendak—thanked by name in the credits—to the Oz books). Jim Henson tried to hook both five-year-old boys and their adolescent sisters, and eventually the tonal shifts proved too much; the film doesn’t feel whole, or quite coherent, and it ends in an odd compromise. It didn’t help that the eternal boy George Lucas rewrote some of the script.

That said, the most striking scene to survive from Henson’s adolescent metaphor is when Jennifer Connelly’s character, having been given a drugged peach, falls into a dream. Possibly hallucinating or spiritually abducted, she winds up at a masked ball where she dances with Bowie’s Goblin King: the two stare at each other with fairly unbridled lust (again, Connelly is 14 in this movie). While Connelly’s come to this world as a champion of childhood, looking to win back her infant brother, here the adult world, with all its temptations, is laid out before her, embodied by Bowie at his most Byronic (or Dashiell Hammett’s first description of Sam Spade: “he looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”) The set and costumes, which seem inspired by the video for Adam Ant’s “Prince Charming,” are a sudden burst of New Romanticism, and the scene’s set to Bowie’s lush “As the World Falls Down.”

In line with the film’s tonal shifts, there’s a change from Bowie’s loud singalong puppet songs of the early part of the film (“Chilly Down,” “Magic Dance’) to the somber, quiet pieces of the last reels, which Bowie’s Jareth sings alone. “As the World Falls Down,” as some commenters have noted, is essentially Bowie channeling Bryan Ferry, who in his contemporary solo album, Boys and Girls, continued to play off the existential Continental romantic mood of Roxy Music’s Avalon (see “Windswept” or the title track). When Bowie sings ev’ry thrill has gone, wasn’t too much fun at all, it’s pure jaded Ferry.

Though encased in dated High Eighties production by Arif Mardin, “World Falls Down” has one of Bowie’s loveliest melodies of the era. The verse’s opening slight upward pushes on “sad love” or “pale jewel” build to longer, again-rising phrases (“within your EYES”) but there’s a tumbling downward in the closing phrase. The chorus has some lovely extended phrasing, culminating in a ruse—the last line of the chorus (the title line) seems as though it’s another declining phrase until Bowie suddenly, lightly soars up a fifth to hold on the dominant note, “DOWN.”

The track’s main musical hook is a five-note, eleventh-spanning bassline by Will Lee, while on the extended soundtrack version of “World Falls Down,” a guitar solo (either Jeff Mironov or Nicky Moroch) briefly pulls the song out of its A major fastness—it’s a mildly chaotic performance, with two quick shifts into 3/4 time. Much of Bowie’s lyric, with its valentines and goopy sentiments like “I’ll place the moon within your heart,” is greeting-card stuff, sure, but it’s deliberate. Someone who’s never been in love before, like Connelly’s character, has to start somewhere, with place-filler phrases to stand for incomprehensible emotions. If it begins in adolescent tumult, the song ends with long stretches of adult melancholy, Bowie murmuring “falling in love” to himself until the fade.

Recorded ca. July-September 1985, London. First issued on the Labyrinth OST, June 1986. While it was slated for a single release at Christmas 1986 to coincide with Labyrinth‘s UK premiere, complete with a video shot by Steve Barron (it’s an odd promo featuring the puppet Hoggle, a very Dorian Gray-looking Bowie and a fax machine as a lead actor), the single was scrapped at the eleventh hour for unknown reasons. Pegg speculates, and I agree, that it was likely Bowie clearing the stage for the harder “protest” material that he would offer on his next record in April ’87. “World Falls Down” very well may have been a hit, Bowie’s own “Lady in Red” or “Careless Whisper”; whether the world needed that, however, is debatable.

Inspired cover: Girl in a Coma, 2010.

Top: Andrzej Jerzy Lech, “Sopot, Polska 1985.”