Breaking Elgar’s Enigma

Breaking Elgar’s Enigma

23rd October 2018OffByRiseNews

Who said Canadians breaking Elgar’s Enigma excel at hockey? Who could forget his double gold and bronze in Sarajevo? He also won silver in Lake Placid.

Canada’s greatest ever rowing duo left the field in their wake three times, in Barcelona and Atlanta, and grabbed a bronze to boot. Led three Olympic championship teams and one runner-up. Only a shortage of competition in women’s hockey keeps her out of the top three. Boucher’s record for most by a Canadian in a single Games. Another early-century enigma, Williams won the 100- and 200-m in Amsterdam in 1928, and received a gun as a prize for his efforts. He used the weapon to commit suicide in 1982. 1968 established Canada on the skiing scene.

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Plug your nose, hang upside down in the water and turn dance moves for three minutes. Do it better than anyone else at the Olympics. You are now Carolyn Waldo in 1988. Buy your copy of the Maclean’s Book of Lists at the newstand or order online now. How did good parenting become a crime? We’ve sent an email with instructions to create a new password.

Breaking Elgar’s Enigma

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Breaking Elgar’s Enigma

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So sorry to see you go! You could release countless Bowie anthologies and never quite capture how special the Thin White Duke really is. God knows he’s good and so does The Quietus. Our writers plunder his back catalogue to unearth the finest Bowie tracks that weren’t hit singles. Bowie’s “plastic soul” is more soulful than most others’ “authentic” soul. He originally drafted this for Lulu, but the way he sings it here could surely never be bettered by man, woman or beast. It’s a love song which seems to be completely shorn of irony.

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In sonic terms alone, ‘The Loneliest Guy’ is one of latter day Bowie’s most compelling pieces. Without the anchorage of a beat, guitar, bass and piano create the musical equivalent of a clotted sob, a lifetime’s accumulation of tears without cathartic release. Then there’s the vocal performance, for which Bowie appears to be drawing on a new awareness of his own mortality. A pun on Art Deco and purportedly named after a Berlin strasse – perhaps Hauptstrasse in Charlottenberg where he bunked down during the “Heroes” years – Bowie has been quoted as saying that ‘Art Decade’ is his paen to West Berlin.

Breaking Elgar’s Enigma

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A fitting coda to its album antecessor, ‘Warszawa’, ‘Art Decade”s simple beauty lies in the sparse, reflective arrangement of repeated simple melodies. Space Oddity – is where the Great Themes kicked in. A weird little song I wrote because one day I got a lot of funny stares from people in the street,” he said in 1969. About a boy whose girlfriend thinks he is socially inferior. I thought it was rather funny really.

I became briefly obsessed – that repeated listening, planning cover versions kind of obsessed – with the second track, ‘Win’. Some consider Diamond Dogs to be Bowie’s masterpiece. For me, the silliness of its Orwellian-Burroughsian narrative is made just about bearable by its author’s growing predilection for studio experimentation. We Are The Dead’ alone comes within spitting distance of fulfilling the project’s lofty aims. Now, even within the most extraordinary body of work in the whole damn game, this is extraordinary. It wasn’t even released as a bonus track until 1991. So it must be a sketchy mediocrity, an afterthought, right?

On first listening ‘That’s Motivation’ foregrounds its showtuneiness, with its bleary horns irresistibly recalling Bernstein, but listen again: this tune is profoundly odd. XTC’s ‘Shake You Donkey Up’, in fact, and Bowie’s vocal is poised somewhere between Dick Van Dyke and Iggy Pop. Bowie’s most po-mo moment on Low, and also arguably the most beautiful, ‘Subterraneans’ is a multi-layered and celestial piece, a sonic painting brimming with referentiality and subtext. Nimrod’ is part of a series Elgar wrote in which each piece obliquely referenced one of his acquaintances. Nimrod’ referenced Augustus J Jaegar, who convinced Elgar, when in a moment of great despair, to continue writing music, citing the German composer Beethoven as an inspiration.

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Visconti and Eno were his Jaegar? More accurately, probably, his something by Jean Genet, but I don’t know enough about Jean Genet to bluff it. Bowie’s desire to swim with dolphins seemed. And then there’s one final guitar chord, a whammy bar sending it low as though the missile is divebombing, its engines on fire, inescapable, chilling. I could see it all, can see it all still, as exciting as it is terrifying. The swooning epic romance of this song – such an unlikely, serene finale to the edgy, jittery, nervy Aladdin Sane – warped me for life at the most impressionable of ages.

I am still mildly disappointed if my romances don’t in every aspect resemble Brief Encounter, a Wong Kar-Wai film, or at least a Walker Brothers ballad. Having effected an creative rebirth in the early 90s with a series of high concept releases, “Hours” featured a good few songs which seemed inspired not by artful roleplay or po-mo posturing but by genuine human emotion. If any of David Lynch’s films has fallen off the radar in recent years, it’s most likely 1997’s Lost Highway, and I’d argue that this is in some part to do with its soundtrack album, as compiled and produced by Trent Reznor. The music in Lost Highway is more ‘of its time’ than in any other Lynch movie, and thus much of it hasn’t aged at all well, from Marilyn Manson to Rammstein, and the film’s opening track, David Bowie and Brian Eno’s ‘I’m Deranged’. Not one of the great Bowie songs – not even among the best half of Space Oddity – but there’s something unique in his oeuvre about this. It feels as if it comes from a halfway house between his early Cockney dodger persona and the nascent alien freakoid. As he watches a “woman hot with worry” caught shoplifting, he even manages to drop in an anti-capitalist, anti-corporate sentiment or two.

Let’s Dance is often dismissed as Bowie’s MTV album, opening as it does with three singles: the gloriously accessible ‘Modern Love’ and ‘China Girl’, and the more complex, sinister funk of the title track. This track, from the Berlin recording sessions which produced Low, is almost indistinguishable from early Throbbing Gristle. Beginning ominously with a pulsing repeated chord, juxtaposed by a soft melody insinuating an almost spectral melancholy and resignation, ‘Warszawa”s looped descant eventually builds to a cautiously optimistic sweeping note before resolving, then beginning its gentle upward swing once again. The Man Who Sold The World is the no-nonsense, proto-metal, hard rock album. One of Bowie’s most muted, whispered, sotto voce tracks ever, ‘After All’ is a trippy haunted-fairground waltz with faintly Buddhist themes.

Maybe a dash of Aleister Crowley. It’s those dubbed multi-octave refrains though, later deployed to great effect at the end of ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ on Hunky Dory, which make a poignant song profound. They always call Bowie a chameleon, but rarely was he more so than on Low’s ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’, in which compassionate confession, paranoid frustration and a detached, almost paralysed sense of lethargy sit side by side. Almost certainly a metaphor for the cocaine abuse that had prompted his move to Europe, the song’s impressionist lyrics obsess over his inability to resist, however hard he tries, from driving at speed at every opportunity until he crashes. Bowie’s voice remains tender over a backdrop of swirling electronic effects throughout the song’s opening verse, but when the drums clatter at the start of the chorus his tone seems to switch to resignation, despite the optimistic arpeggio that climbs behind him into the bridge. Oh, more bleeding-heart desperate lonely romantic yearning disguised as cold haughty robotic heartlessness.

Tears of a pierrot, fears of a machine. You can say all you like about the influence of Kraftwerk and Neu! 1979’s Lodger witnessed the debut of a conspicuously ‘clean’ Bowie persona breaking free from the cocaine mayhem of the ‘Cracked Actor’ era and the grey purgatory of the Berlin period. Although generally discussed as part of a trilogy with Low and “Heroes”, Lodger was recorded in Switzerland rather than West Berlin, and features no instrumental pieces. The lead-off track, ‘Fantastic Voyage’, finds Bowie in reflective mood, if somewhat perturbed. The glam rock highlight from one of Homo Superior’s RCA-imperial phase book-end albums, was written on a formative trip to America. The biggest thrill was meeting Lou Reed”, he said on his return, stating the obvious.

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Queen Bitch’ his tribute to VU and Lou was obviously a lot more heartfelt than ‘Andy Warhol’ – a great but weird ditty that apparently pissed off the soup tin king more than a soupcon. It was certainly more inspiring than the tedious Song For Bob Dylan at any case. Terry Burns, who suffered from mental illness. It’s far from sentimental, often very grand guignol, and sympathetic: “all the madmenare just as sane as me. As is probably the case for many of my generation, I heard music influenced by Krautrock a good while before I heard the genuine article, and this song would be the closest I came to the Utopian pulsebeat of Neu! Familiarity with Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger’s linear innovations hasn’t dimmed my affection for this track, however.

Breaking Elgar’s Enigma

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