David Bowie, "Five Years"

>> Monday, January 11, 2016

Maybe this is as close to a favorite Bowie track as I have.  I dunno.  I could be wrong.  I could be thinking of "Station to Station".  Or "Life on Mars", could be "Life on Mars".  But there's something about this one I always come back to.

I think it's the delivery.  There's this weird thing in "Five Years", where you have all these characters who are just labels--"The News Guy", "A Girl My Age"--and yet the way Bowie sums them up, there's something somehow specific about each of them, as if he's just mentioning them by a descriptor, "Oh, you know, the soldier with a broken arm," but he knows exactly who he's referring to and so you do, too, you can just picture them in your head even though there's not actually a lot there; he hasn't told you anything more than that there's a soldier, one with a broken arm.

Also, I'm a sucker for dynamics, and this song's slow, sloping rise from hushed drums to Bowie's frenzied, apocalyptic wailing bores right down into some primal part of my brain that goes, "Music, goo-ooood," in slurred Frankensteinian tones.

The world didn't end in 1977, which is good because we probably would have all missed Star Wars that May, but Bowie made it sound credible that it could have happened.  Again, it's all in the delivery: Bowie never gets around to telling us why the Earth is really dying, not on "Five Years" nor on any of the rest of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, but the sorrow and rage dripping in his voice is too poignant for it not to be gospel.

A lot will be made in the obituaries about Bowie's theatricality, but it wasn't just that he sometimes liked to dress up onstage, wear lots of makeup, and do these elaborate bits of mime and kabuki and whatever while he was up there.  His singing was always theatrical, whether it was the neoretro crooning on tracks like "Station to Station" or his conversational-to-a-scream delivery of "Five Years".  And yet it always sounded naturalistic; I've long had a guilty pleasure thing for Meat Loaf singing Jim Steinman, but Loaf and Steinman are always theatrically theatrical, those songs are so obviously showtunes ramped up with loud guitars and there's always something a little (or a lot) silly about the whole thing that makes it hard not to crack up a little even when the lyrics are about a viciously fatal motorcycle wreck.  But Bowie was never silly unless he wanted to be, that's how in control Bowie always was of his voice, his manner, his persona; and even when he wanted to be silly, there was a slyness that let you know he was in on the joke.

But that's not "Five Years".  "Five Years" is just brutal.  And beautiful.


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