“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.
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.