God Bless the Girl

September 24, 2015

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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.