Friday, August 18, 2006

The song I've been hammering the last couple of days is Lulu's version of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World," from 1974, which Bowie produced and arranged, and on which he plays very weedy saxophone and sings discreet backing vocals. This was a hit in England, and it's easy to hear why; by then, Bowie was the unquestioned king of pop music over there, and Lulu was a fixture if not an icon (I'm guessing it was some combination of the two). A natural Top Ten, then, and the record has that same ease, if you want to call something that basically galumphs easeful. This is high glam, with a rhythm that suggests a moose wearing sequined platform boots--it bumps, but its stride is occasionally less than certain. As it turns out, this is perfect for Lulu, who has this little squelch in her voice that communicates a kind of all-encompassing excitement, as if she's not altogether certain what she's jazzed about, but is sure it's worth the energy anyway. Here, that squelch--audible on every chorus when she gives "You're face to face" a little extra squeeze on the you're--is irresistible, especially paired with the songwriter's near-anonymous support. I also love the not-quite-in-rhythm congas and the sax, which evokes a balloon letting out air at the end of a party.

This is a trashy record in the very best sense: let's-make-a-mess-and-dance-around-in-it rather than this-is-lousy-but-fuck-it, though there's probably some of that in there too, which I'm having too good a time to permit myself to hear. The Word (easily my favorite U.K. music publication--imagine Mojo as a writer's mag rather than an editor's, or more to the point a demographic's, though god knows The Word is a slave to its demo too, which is basically Mojo for people who also like Sufjan and Rilo Kiley and the Pet Shop Boys) recently reviewed the song (on a Bowie covers comp I haven't heard; my copy is on a mix-CD from Douglas) and griped that Lulu was "clueless what [the song] is about," but that's precisely what makes this version great. I don't really know what it's about either, because it's opaque schlock. Bowie clearly thought he was Saying Something, which made it seem sort of overblown; Kurt Cobain, in the version from Nirvana's Unplugged, heard it as a description of a deal with the devil, and that version communicates it as such--it's slow, forbidding, doomed. Lulu sounds giddy to be singing such a juicy melody, to ride the tune's assured momentum, to hoist upon that galloping rhythm and the guitarist's all-too-human downstroke (one chord played twice per bar), and she and Bowie make it sound like a party.

I've run hot and cold on Bowie for years. Long since I first encountered his albums (as opposed to his videos as a kid), I still find myself surprised whenever I enjoy them, even though I've been enjoying them pretty much from the beginning. Blame it on having read Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung before hearing them; blame it on his own weird ice-man routine; blame it on my finding glam as style and epoch sort of dull. (My then-girlfriend A.J. at the end of seeing Velvet Goldmine: "That was only two hours?!") I adore a lot of his music--the most obvious stuff, usually--but I seldom feel very close to it. Especially after reading Hugo Wilcken's superb 33 1/3 on Low, I admire him in ways that have more to do with process than result--he was obviously a canny collaborator and a smart guy, and was not only genuinely creative but someone who clearly got off on creating things, a big soft spot for me. And with Lulu, he seems to let his guard down more than usual. Reinvention was his watchword during the '70s, of course, and here he got to reinvent his own song in the broadest way possible. Listening, you can hear the gears turning in Bowie's head: He could take this rather depressing lyric, give it to a household name (of a different sort than his, of course), and fool around with both without turning either into a joke. Irony may have been another of his watchwords then, but this "Man Who Sold the World" doesn't feel the least bit distanced. She deflates its delusions of gravitas, and he's canny enough to realize that it's good for the song, perhaps because four years after he recorded it he can see where he misfired. Or maybe he just wanted the money. Either way, it works brilliantly.