Wedged in the chameleonic shuffle between the crackling pseudo-theater and spike-mullet glam of the Ziggy Stardust-era and the dissonant pop fractures of the “Berlin trilogy” resides one of David Bowie’s stranger shape-shifting career iterations: the Philly soul simulacra of 1975’s Young Americans. Having first developed an interest in soul after losing his own during the coke-fog paranoia of the half-cocked Diamond Dogs (1974) and the subsequent tour (documented by the stilted, cross-eyed soul vamps of David Live), Bowie dove redheadfirst into the deliberate, Baudrillardian “plastic soul” of Young Americans. He immersed himself in waves of cascading strings and funk guitars, creating an album of detached psychosis whose success can be found within its very failure.
The album is buoyed by its stellar bookends: the sax-ripped swinging funk of the title track, a song marked by the joyous, explosive chorus of background soul singers who help carry the lyrics of desperate ennui to a climactic release of Beatles melody and R&B rhythm; and “Fame,” a collaboration with John Lennon, all scathing lyrics and pounding, insistent beat, propelled by the slinking, sensuous guitar of Carlos Alomar. Yet in the murk between those two tracks — essentially, the entire album — Bowie loses his way. The remaining songs are vague and faceless, from the bubbly slow jam “Win” to the cold disco product pop of “Fascination” to the melodramatic jam-funk version of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” which, just as was prophesized in “Ballad of John and Yoko,” manages to crucify Lennon, mangling the fragile beauty of the smart one’s original version until it becomes a turgid and clunky shout-along.
None of that makes the album necessarily bad, but it doesn’t make it great, either. An extraordinary leap up the evolutionary ladder from the shaky bottom rung of David Live, the album is still a long way from the brilliant coke-soul heights of Station to Station (1976). Young Americans, then, is the sound of a performer in transition, shaking off an earlier persona while trying to construct the next. It’s that in-between moment in which can you catch a glimpse of the man behind the image — a frightened, drug addled cracked actor searching for a new, real identity among those he has created and those foisted upon him. It’s that failure of artifice, that momentary discovery of Bowie as a human being, that redeems the album (and maybe the artist) from discount-bin detritus to near-classic status, regardless of the fact that most of the blue-eyed soul found here is as dilated and off-kilter as its creator’s own baby blues.
[Like all of Virgin’s Bowie reissues, Young Americans includes a handful of B-sides as well as a DVD of Bowie performing and being interviewed on the Dick Cavett show in 1974. The DVD, featuring a coke-fueled Bowie twitching and mumbling eloquently about art and politics, is worth the price of admission alone.]