Classic Rock Classics: David Bowie’s ‘Lodger’

Classic Rock Classics: David Bowie’s ‘Lodger’

I first knew David Bowie’s Lodger as a CD in a cracked jewel case, passed along by a friend about 15 years ago. Like most casual Bowie fans, I’d always liked his tuneful, Ziggy-era songs, but hadn’t gotten much further than 1974’s Diamond Dogs — and Lodger’s cover image of his flattened corpse, looking like he’s just hit your windshield, unnerved me.

The first listen was a revelation. I couldn’t have told you when he’d made it, or which of his many personas it might have belonged to — but its fearlessly unhinged sound hooked me right away, and my love for it only deepened when I decided to cover a handful of its songs on Shearwater’s 2016 tour. Bowie had just emerged from a period of silence to release Blackstar, and it seemed like a good time to tip our hats; we’d just begun picking apart “Look Back in Anger” when the news of his death was announced.

My first thought was to can the idea. Suddenly everyone was covering Bowie, and I didn’t want to jump on a tribute bandwagon; but in the weeks that followed, I had a change of heart. Bowie had written so many great songs that few people were giving Lodger any love, and I felt like it wouldn’t be out of line for us to stump for it.

We learned it mostly on the road, adding a new song every few nights at sound check, then we finally performed the whole thing on a memorable night in Chicago, after our usual set. I warned the audience that they could leave if they were tired, but most of them stayed, anyway; and we were still buzzing from it the next day in the offices of the Onion’s AV club, where we played it again for their cameras.

I figured we were done with it after that; but, in 2018, WNYC DJ John Schaefer and I hatched a plan to stage a concert series of Bowie’s entire Berlin Trilogy (which, if you’re curious, you can find here). Today, Shearwater probably knows Lodger’s musical ingredients as well as anyone who isn’t Tony Visconti; and it’s strange to think that we’ve played some of its songs live more than Bowie did.

Despite this, at its twitching core, Lodger is as mysterious to me as when I first heard it. The last of the three albums Bowie made with Visconti and Brian Eno in Berlin and other parts of Europe between 1977 and 1979, Lodger followed on the heels of Low and “Heroes,” and it’s sometimes dismissed as a baffling anticlimax.

Which it is, I guess, if you’re hoping for more of “Heroes”‘ grand, theatrical declamations or Low’s sprawling instrumentals. Lodger is an utterly different beast: 10 concise, claustrophobic tales of dislocation, patched together during and after Bowie’s 1978 world tour. It sounds urgent but scattered, and each song emanates from a different damaged character, whom Bowie pointedly descends from the stage to inhabit — murmuring, wailing and babbling like Scott Walker after a sleepless week, while his band hangs on for dear life. It’s not anticlimactic so much as unresolved, and it blithely calls a halt to the trilogy in “Red Money,” with a chorus of Bowies chirping “Project cancelled.

It’s also great fun to play. There’s an unmistakable darkness to the songs, but they’re all leavened with mischief, and as we stumbled over their twists and turns I felt I could almost hear Bowie and Eno snickering in the control room.

None of Lodger’s tracks are what you might call structurally normal (and the most off-kilter, perversely, might be the relatively danceable “DJ”). Eno loved using systems and games to force Bowie (and himself) out of comfortable habits; and finding the album’s organizing principles, for us, often required breaking the songs into tiny pieces and reassembling them, or trying to imagine which of Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” cards — a set of aphorisms for breaking writer’s block, including “Do nothing for as long as possible” — they’d consulted as a starting point.

Luckily for us, some clues were already buried in Bowie lore, like the fact that “Move On” features a segment of the Bowie-penned anthem “All the Young Dudes” played backwards; or that Side A’s “Fantastic Voyage” and Side B’s “Boys Keep Swinging” share the same chord progression; or that “Yassassin” began its life as a half-serious attempt to create the genre of “Turkish reggae” (which is more helpful than you might think, if you’re trying to grasp its bass line).

Beyond that, we were on our own, and close attention revealed a surprising wealth of details tucked away in Lodger’s blurred, tinny mixes. The twin bass lines and subtle changes of “Repetition” were one hidden gem, as was the way that the low piano and bass of “Look Back in Anger” stagger against each other to create its thunderous rumble. My favorite gem was the fact that the odd guitar figure of “African Night Flight” ends by quoting “Jingle Bells,” perhaps as an in-joke; I couldn’t meet any of my bandmates’ eyes while we played it without cracking up.

The songs are packed with these sorts of Easter eggs, and flecked with chaos; we took care to avoid nudging the wonky beats and questionable notes into line. Lodger’s wobbly moments have a cumulative, delirious effect, so much that Bowie considered naming the album Planned Accidents. And he seems to have delighted in confounding not only his audience, but his soulful and adept rhythm section.

Carlos Alomar (guitar), Dennis Davis (drums) and George Murray (bass), the “DAM trio,” were the same team that tore up Station to Station with charm and finesse, and their live performance of “Fame” at Nassau Coliseum in 1976 is almost impossibly sleek, funky and definitive. But on Lodger, they sound like they’re working in the dark. Alomar, who honored us by conducting Low‘s ”Warszawa” at our Berlin Trilogy performance in New York, remembered wondering if Bowie had finally gone too far with “African Night Flight.”

“Then he just started rapping over the top of it,” he told us, shrugging helplessly. “And it turned out great.”

Lodger produced no big hits — a problem Bowie would correct in his next two albums. Still, in later years he often cited it as one of his favorites, even though he rarely (or, in the case of “African Night Flight” and “Move On,” never) performed its songs live. Forty years later, I have; and I can safely say that trying to re-create its splendid mess feels like running an obstacle course at top speed. We played it as faithfully as possible, but in the end opted for gusto above accuracy; and I did my best to sing the songs without impersonating Bowie, hoping that if nothing else, we’d be living in the restless spirit of the album.

And restlessness was always a hallmark, maybe the hallmark, of Bowie’s life and art. He worked quickly in the studio, and often seems to have felt most at home when he was heading out the door — shedding images, collaborators, homes and enthusiasms like outfits. Lodger, to me, is a rueful reckoning with the costs of this approach, embodying both the adrenaline rush of constant motion and the nausea that comes with being so many places that you’re nowhere at all. “Sick of you/sick of me/lust for the free life/quashed and maimed/like a valuable loved one/left unnamed,” he spits in “African Night Flight,” a song meant to summon the desperate ennui of drunken bush pilots — though any musician who’s been on tour for more than a few weeks knows this feeling pretty well.

It’s also an eerily good fit for the frantic pace of life in the Internet age, when we spend our days flitting around the world, bombarded with dire headlines, without even leaving the room. Maybe that’s why Lodger still sounds so startling and fresh today; it’s an album for people who feel they’re never allowed to rest. These days, that seems to be almost everyone. For me, this album has become the most powerful version of the trick Bowie pulled again and again, in plain sight: for all its jumpy strangeness, it makes me feel like I’m not alone.

Jonathan Meiburg is the lead singer of Shearwater (Sub Pop) and a founding member of Loma (also Sub Pop).  His first book, The Feathered People, will be published by Knopf in 2020.

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