November 15, 2010

Win (live, 1974).
Win (live, tantalizing fragment, 2004).

The best of Young Americans‘ tortured soul ballads, “Win,” an abstracted dissection of a relationship, is Bowie’s most successful attempt to use the sound of contemporary R&B to flesh out his favorite concerns: obsession, power, betrayal, control.

With some of Bowie’s most inspired lines on the record (“someone like you should not be allowed to start any fires,” “life lies dumb on its heroes,” the opener “Me, I hope that I’m crazy”), “Win” also has a gorgeous, intricate production: the entire track seems swathed in cotton. Motifs (saxophone, strings (pizzicato towards the fadeout), arpeggiated guitar) occur throughout, often matched to Bowie’s every vocal pause. David Sanborn’s saxophone, garrulous and inescapable on earlier tracks like “Young Americans,” is now set back from center stage; Sanborn’s opening line is a gorgeous roller-coaster swirl of notes.

“Win” marks a move away from the loose, jam-inspired material of the Sigma sessions towards a colder, luxurious sound—it’s the track that most seems like a blueprint for Station to Station. It also suggests an end to Bowie’s American soul project. “Things like ‘Win’–the chord structures are much more of a European thing than an American thing,” Bowie said in 1993 (“Win”‘s verses are built mainly on sixth chords–G6, F6, A6).

Bowie’s vocal is more restrained and less would-be-soul boy than on earlier Young Americans tracks: where something like “Fascination” is full of short, rhythmic vocal phrases, “Win” has an extended, meandering vocal melody in the verse, Bowie keeping mainly to his lower register. Where Bowie once was matched and sometimes drowned out by his backing singers, here he keeps them in check. In later chorus repeats he undermines them, growling out his lines in a low, threatening voice.

The verses find the singer and his lover passively vying for control, with a masochistic feel to the proceedings; the chorus, a set of precisely-aimed knife blows, finds the singer rigging his zero-sum game, yet not really caring how it plays out. He sings “all…you’ve got…to do…is…win like a piece of extortion; there’s a marvelous sense of contempt in it, yet Bowie dreamily lingers on the last word, savoring it. Just before the end, Bowie sings “it ain’t over” with a different melody than he’s used in the rest of the song. He’s not nearly exhausted his reserves, and the fadeout comes as a small mercy.

Recorded early-mid December 1974. On Young Americans. Debuted on 1 December 1974 at the Omni in Atlanta, on what would be the last night of the Philly Dogs tour, and its only live performance.

Top: Tammy Hackney, “Death,” ca. 1974-75. Death’s newly unearthed recordings reveal a remarkable missing link between Detroit bands like the Stooges and MC5 from the late 1960s and early ’70s and the high-velocity assault of punk.