I wish I could have been alive to follow him from the beginning. How wild would it be to love Ziggy Stardust, then head to the record store and get this. What an unexpected surprise that would be. This was also the moment when David Bowie went from an oddity to someone interesting. Does that make sense? It would have been easy for Bowie to end up being lumped into the same category as the like of Marc Bolan, a glam rock star, full stop. But then he did the wildest thing: he changed everything.
This is the best Bowie had ever sounded up to this point. The lower his voice got, the more I loved it. That’s one reason why I like late career Bowie so much, but this is the first time he really made it his go-to vocal style, and it is absolutely divine. The blue-eyed soul style fits him like a glove, and it’s such a huge immediate change. He was getting more soulful on Diamond Dogs, and he had already shown his interest in American music since Aladdin Sane, but this wasn’t like anything anybody could have expected.
There’s a great article/interview on Pitchfork with Bowie’s long-time guitarist, Carlos Alomar, mostly about this album. This was their first collaboration, and it turned out to be a fruitful one. I never realized how much Bowie relied on recruiting talented people around him. I had always thought of him as a “one-man-band”, but that’s not the truth at all. Mick Ronson was essential in forming the sound of Bowie’s glam years, especially the heaviness of Man Who Sold the World, and of course there are other people later on who Bowie would work with. It’s really cool to read these stories about Bowie, because I have never read as much about him and real interviews with people who worked with him than I have this past week. It seems like he had a great knack for finding really talented people and feeding off of their skills and combining them with his, and it also makes him sound like a fantastic musician to work with.
My favorite story from that interview is Bowie visiting Harlem with Carlos. That kind of personality is what defines Bowie, ready to take in and experience anything directly. That’s what makes this album so incredibly good. He doesn’t hire a bunch of white people to help him recreate soul music. He has Carlos bring in his own singers and lets them help direct him. It’s not just Bowie doing soul, it’s an actual soul band, and a lot of it was even recorded live creating a sense of immediacy. The soundscape is gorgeous on the album, super slick, smooth or slinky. The guitar is rounded and shimmery, and he shows that the rhythm section is even more important than the lead. It’s not like Mick Ronson’s guitar work at all. Carlos brings more rhythm and groove to his sound. As for the rest of the band, i t’s hard to believe that it’s Mick Garson still on piano (and keyboards?), because it’s so tame. The saxophone is sexy af. There are even plucked violins! It’s like heaven.
Of course the BIG SONG is the title track. Whether you like this album or not, everyone loves this song. It was the perfect single and opener, because it’s the most interesting song, has an obviously huge feeling, and it’s more “Bowie does soul” than “soul does Bowie” like the rest of the album kinda is, if that makes sense. Bowie delivers it beautifully as well, showing off the full extent of what he could do vocally up to now, and I read that during one live concert he actually collapsed for nearly five minutes during the big moment. The rhythm on this song is so bright as well. Gosh, the rhythm section really brought it.
It’s not the only song worth visiting on the album though! Win is the reason Beck’s best song, Debra, exists. The opening saxophone waves immediately recall getting inside Beck’s Hyundai. It was made for the bedroom, and Bowie sings as if he’s whispering in yr ear.
I mentioned the keyboards on the album, and they’re no better than Right. It reminds me a lot of Billy Preston’s work with the Beatles on Let It Be, but that may just be my inexperience with listening to soul keyboards. I love this song for its sexy keyboards, wicked solo (just listen to that and don’t melt!) and Bowie’s aggressive vocals. His call-and-response with the background singers is incredible.
If there’s any other song that reaches the “Bowie doing soul” heights of Young Americans, it’s Somebody Up There Likes Me, the almost title track of the album and longest song on the album. It’s got handclaps! Handclaps! I especially love Bowie’s background singing at the end while he sings “somebody” in falsetto over top it.
Then there’s Across the Universe. It’s somewhat deservedly maligned, because like the Pin Ups cover songs, it strips away what made the original so good without really adding anything worthwhile. Look, the song just doesn’t have the same impact like this. It’s not bad for me, but knowing how incredible the original is makes it a definitely slump on the album. Can You Hear Me tries to redeem the album after that, but it’s a slow one and doesn’t really pick up the album enough despite being a great song. It’s Fame that blows the album back on course and to the finish line. Carlos Alomar wrote the guitar hook for some cover song, but Bowie thought it was too good for that, and then Bowie and John Lennon jammed out the song together. I’ve always read that Lennon helped right this, but I’ve never heard him. Supposedly the fast to slow track of FAME FAME fame fame fame at the end is him, but I can’t hear Lennon in that at all. Whatever the case, it’s a wild song and so catchy.
I love this album, because it’s so different and it’s a sound that Bowie will continue to work into his music but never quite so directly. Diamond Dogs and Man Who Sold the World are great and under appreciated, but Young Americans is the most underrated album of his ’70s career.