Album Review: David Bowie - The Gouster

Album Reviews
10/01/2016
Gerrit Feenstra

We lost an irreplaceable artist this year when David Bowie passed away on January 10, the Monday after his last LP, Blackstar, was released. Given the gravity of Blackstar and its accompanying play, Lazarus, the weight of his passing only felt heavier, leaving many fans contemplating their own mortality for the months and months that followed. And while the sheer brilliance of Blackstar should not at all be undersold, this month, we are glad to have a lighter, more reminiscent reason to revisit Bowie’s records. This week, Bowie gives us Who Can I Be Now?, the quintessential box set of Bowie’s material from 1974-1976. Much of the material here is familiar to fans, released throughout the years in various formats (pretty much all of those formats are given to you here anew, and some on vinyl for the first time). But one such inclusion that deserves much recognition on its own is The Gouster, the “lost” album from late 1974, following Diamond Dogs, that was scrapped and split up between one-off singles and half the length of 1975’s Young Americans. And while we’ve heard versions of everything on The Gouster before, here in Who Can I Be Now?, we get the album mixes and the album presentation, and it feels like we have a 42 year-old David Bowie record that we’ve never heard before. The Gouster sheds new light on this incredibly interesting period of the man’s life, taking in hand both the high-headed glisten of Young Americans and the Orwellian tension of Diamond Dogs to give us a paranoid pop masterpiece.

Bowie die-hards scanning through the tracklist of The Gouster won't find any surprises - let's get that out of the way from the start. We've heard these tracks before, released as singles and b-sides surrounding Young Americans and even deeper into the 70s from there. But apart from the new Gouster-specific mixes that are presented here, the most enjoyment from the new record comes from its presentation. Here, we have these seven songs, "Young Americans" included, presented in an an album format that gives each one of them such different context than that with which they've been known to us in the past. Torn from the backs of 45s and CD bonus tracks, we have an intentional and impactful collection of material with a heady arc to boot. Approaching The Gouster, you'll have the most fun if you try and experience it anew.

Prime example: "John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)". The Gouster opener was originally released five years after its recording, in 1979, as a market booster to try and reign back in the fans of his earlier work who found themselves scratching heads at the experimental meanderings of Lodger. All formats were backed with the Ziggy-era original, almost as if to present it as a remix rather than a standalone track. But on Gouster, the listener is forced to interpret it as something new - something worthy of kicking off an LP. It's a theme of revisitation that Bowie would return to again and again in his career. On "Buddha of Suburbia", he would return to the refrain of "Space Oddity". The cover of The Next Day mercilessly questions the importance and legacy of "Heroes". Approached from this angle, "John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)" is the perfect opening to Gouster, an album that consciously exits the Ziggy Stardust character into gaudy disco glamour. In fact, in this "plastic soul" era of Bowie's work before the Thin White Duke makes his appearance, the Gouster may even be a new character, albeit one with less of hard and fast foundation than either of his siblings. With the verses make slight nods to everything on the radio from the time and his backup singers endlessly repeating "Dancing!" until the end of time, "John" pummels forward as if the "Ever Circling Skeletal Family" from the end of Diamond Dogs has received a television-ready cover up of a paint job. Suddenly, the moral questioning around the original versions' cover seems sellable in the right light of the dance floor, and every facet of identity is up for discussion if it means furthering the brand. On The Gouster, "John" is anything but a one-off sales spike. It's a harrowing exposition that sets us up for all of the identity crisis later to come.

The rest of Side A plays out like a Ziggy record, however more fab than the Gouster's rock and roll counterpart, still full of impossible swagger and confidence. "Somebody Up There Likes Me" is pulled from its Side B placement on Young Americans, here being the first word we hear from Bowie pasting "John". It goes hand in hand with "It's Gonna Be Me", a lesser known track first released as a bonus track on the CD version of Young Americans in 1991. Here with nothing but dance-floor context before it, "Somebody" comes across as far more of a dumb-luck narrative than it does on Young Americans. Remember there that it starts Side B, after the anxiety of "Right" closes out side A. Where "Somebody" may have first been interpreted as a type of tongue-in-cheek manifest destiny (fitting with the theme of Young Americans), on The Gouster, it's endearingly more stumbling. David walks into his next character with the same shrug and smile, hoping it works out. "It's Gonna Be Me" is more determined, crashing through walls of sound and an impossibly dramatic build to continue questing for the crown. Only three tracks strong, side A of The Gouster makes the best of its time, showcasing a character with endless confidence and determination, but for what reason, we are yet to find out.

Where Side A gives us the character as is, Side B lets us inside the Gouster's head. Describing The Gouster's origins, Tony Visconti said, "Gouster was a word unfamiliar to me but David knew it as a type of dress code worn by African American teens in the ‘60’s, in Chicago, but in the context of the album its meaning was attitude, an attitude of pride and hipness". Bowie wouldn't make his famous appearance on Soul Train until the next year, but it's not hard to see that his love of soul extends far before then. And yet, there is, of course, a separation of identity. This is Ziggy Stardust, after all. Is it fair for David Bowie to give up one character in favor of another, hipper appropriation? On "Who Can I Be Now?", he asks himself just this. Letting Ziggy drown into his own narcissism on the paranoid Diamond Dogs, Bowie sees the potential for another meltdown. Linking "Who Can I Be Now?" to the opener of "John", he recognizes the innate monetary value of this type of revisionism, but is it really what he wants? And in this way, The Gouster once again gives great new context to classics, as "Who Can I Be Now?" spills into "Can You Hear Me". As even the tracklist reveals, Side B of The Gouster asks a lot of questions. It's evident that Bowie's identity is in flux, but one thing that isn't is his desire to love. Love guides "Can You Hear Me", but it also leads the crescendo into the self-love of "Young Americans". It isn't until after a fair amount of self-doubt that Bowie reaches this famous climax. It adds some well-deserved conflict to the gloss.

Ending with “Right”, Bowie gives us perhaps the greatest shift of perspective seen between The Gouster and its eventual culmination in Young Americans. On the latter, “Right” is track 4, the end of side A. It follows “Young Americans”, just like it does on The Gouster, but not before the double shot of slinky 70s magic that is “Win” and “Fascination”. This separation on Young Americans cushions “Right”. Its anxious, brooding effect ends up coming across like Aladdin Sane’s “Cracked Actor”, Diamond Dogs’ “We Are The Dead”, or many of the other mid-album turns that Bowie takes into the grimy darkness. But on The Gouster, it’s the closer, and furthermore, it’s the direct follow to the golden youth and nostalgia of “Young Americans”. Where Young Americans ends with a foxy toss of the hips, Gouster ends with a looming feeling of doom. David’s internal dialogue on this track starts to sound like a panic attack. Can he keep this up? Now that Ziggy is dead and gone, is there anywhere to go from here?

This is where The Gouster really finds its foothold and forms a snapshot of Bowie in late 1974. In a sort of turn, maybe the album named for a moxie that Bowie knows that even he can’t possibly possess is the beginning of a turn away from character driven narratives. This “plastic soul” period of his career takes a darker form here, shying away from the gooey-eyed culture camp of Young Americans to embody a Bowie who is really asking all of us “Who Can I Be Now?”. In this way, The Gouster is much more chronological and narrative than its more famous cousin. It follows the paranoid degradation of Diamond Dogs with a catharsis, one that won’t fully find its foothold until Station to Station two years later. Nearing the apex of an insurmountable high, David doesn’t want to find himself on the other side looking around for Halloween Jack and his other imaginary friends. In The Gouster, he takes that feeling and projects it onto the canvas of American culture, itself in the midst of fervent denial, whispering “Never been known to fail” until the curtains close.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see the value and genius of The Gouster, more than 40 years behind us. Ever the poet and ever the prophet, Bowie’s vision of himself and the times is startling and real. But perhaps coming off the heaviness of < em >Diamond Dogs and pushing towards a brighter Ziggy-free future, it wasn’t time for a cultural awakening so on-the-nose. In contrast, < em >Young Americans provided exactly what Bowie’s career and fans needed at the time - a strong exit push off of Diamond Dogs into welcoming and glittering new territory. His cultural commentaries through remain just as vibrant, though this time around with a bit more subtlety sprinkled into the grooves. And while < em >Young Americans will remain as the sign of the times, its younger sibling gives us a rawer, more dynamic glance through the looking glass. In one of the most exhilarating and dynamic periods of his life, The Gouster gives us a grand picture of a man with endless possibilities, who was not content to pick just one man.

The Gouster is out now for the first time in its original arrangement, as part of David Bowie’s massive 1974-1976 box set < em >Who Can I Be Now?. Pick it up at your local record store and keep on dancing again and again and again. Also, later this year, keep your eye out for David Bowie’s final recordings, as part of the release of the Lazarus cast recording soundtrack.

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