Strangers When We Meet

“Steely resolve is falling from me
My poor soul, poor bruised passivity
All your regrets ran rough-shod over me
I’m so glad that we’re strangers when we meet”

So good, he couldn’t just put it on one album and be done with it. And yet, it’s still an obscure masterpiece. This song means a lot to me, not because of any special memory I have with it, but Bowie’s performance combined with the lyrics and melody move me an incredible amount. If it doesn’t move you yet, take a walk alone at night and put this on repeat. The bass will work its way into you, and Bowie will fight over your emotions. It’s something special, and it’s a huge shame that the song got lost.

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Love is the most common subject in songs for a reason. It’s the most complicated, frustrating, wonderful feeling that exists. Falling in love is powerful, and falling out of love is excruciating. When love is over, and you meet, it’s an odd feeling. You’re displaced, and it’s the closest feeling to purgatory that probably exists. You’re neither lovers nor friends, but you pretend to be one while you feel you’re the other, and neither works out. The person you once knew becomes a stranger, because you can’t share anymore, like a door has closed.

That’s the feeling of this song: displaced, not quite settled anywhere at all. Bowie sings in a hushed, conversational tone in the beginning and slowly grows in strength and power as the song goes on. At first, he’s numb, apathetic and grey, but later he makes a choice to make the best of an awful situation. There’s no use complaining, might as well just accept it.

In the beginning, he’s confused by how they got there, exactly how you feel at the end of a relationship. How did such a good thing turn so sour? But in the middle of the song, there’s a lot of anguish in his voice. I love how he sings, “cold tired fingers… tapping out your memories… halfway sadness… dazzled by the new…” Powerful stuff for me.

At the end of last year, I read this book called On Love by Alain de Botton that was really great. It chronicled a relationship from beginning to end, and Strangers When We Meet reminds me of that same thing. When he sings, “your embrace… was all that I feared…” it’s that moment when you know something’s wrong and you push it knowing that you will only get an answer you don’t want.

Then in the end, instead of ending it, he accepts it. “Steely resolve is falling from me” turns to “I’m so glad that we’re strangers when we meet!” Maybe they can fall in love again, start anew. It even comes off a little delusional, like he knows it can’t happen but he will go overboard trying to force it to happen, and it hurts like a knife in my chest when I hear it. I’ve cried almost every time I’ve listened to this song.

Both versions (on Buddha and Outside) each have their share of strengths, but I think that overall I would go for the version on Outside. They aren’t all that much different but for a few little changes that make some big impacts. Outside frankly has a better band, and Bowie’s singing is a lot more nuanced. I wanna also give props to Reeves Gabrels who I’ve been a little wishy-washy on in the past as a guitarist, but here he sounds like he’s trying to sound as much like Robert Fripp as possible. Those guitar sounds in the beginning of the song especially, but also throughout, are fantastic. Fripp could coax out some incredible textures, and Gabrels does just that here. And you know, the whole frame of the song is in that bass. It just wouldn’t be the same without it.

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A New Career in a New Town

This is the most impactful Bowie song to me, and it’s not just because of his death and its use in I Can’t Give Everything Away. This has been one of my favorites for a while, and over the past seven months it’s just gotten more and more powerful. Bowie is known as a vocalist and an interesting pop songwriter, while his Berlin trilogy is heavily Eno-influenced and though it’s not typical of what makes Bowie such a popular musician, it’s part of what makes his legacy so grand. He dabbled, and A New Career in a New Town was a fork in the road of the two paths he would take.

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Low, and the Berlin trilogy in general, lives and breathes by its duality. There’s the duality of the Berlin Wall that inspired it, the American and European divide that drove him to it, and the actual divide in pop and instrumental on both Low and “Heroes”. A New Career in a New Town sits right in the middle of that divide, and it doesn’t shy away from every possible sentiment coming with that. It’s an actual combination of the two sounds, opening to the sounds of side two of the record with otherworldly synthesizers and a programmed drumbeat that clashes very quickly with the incredible drums and bass from side one.

The harmonica acts like the vocals, but why I love this song so much is in the way the harmonica speaks much louder than any lyrics possibly could have. I guess that’s why it was so fitting to use them on I Can’t Give Everything Away. See, the harmonica is a melancholy instrument – I mean that’s why they call sadness the blues right? – and it bridges the sadness of eastern Germany with the bright pop instrumentation that gives sound to the optimism of western Germany. It’s wistful for a future or a past that’s just out of reach. You can define it any way you want, but in the end it perfectly represents that feeling of something you can no longer have, leaving your past behind for an uncertain future. But it’s not just wallowing in that feeling, because the pop melody brings that joy of the unknown to the whole experience.

In the end, just like in 1977, Bowie was leaving behind a past that he knew well, a past that led him to a lot of fame and wonder, but also it was leading him out of pain – the pain of drugs and psychosis, the pain of cancer – and into a better place. I’ve cried so much listening to this song, and I think that’s what shows how powerful it is. It’s not a shallow manipulation either, this is an expertly crafted song that sincerely encapsulates what it means to be on the threshold of something new, and it’s wonderful, scary, and beautiful all at once.