By the time Young Americans arrived in the mid Seventies, David Bowie had already made a career out of being a chameleon. Switching personas the way some of us switch our underwear, he’d already created theatrical characters such as Ziggy Stardust and had gained a reputation as one of the more interesting rock stars of the time. So, with Young Americans, Bowie decided to do the next logical thing a rock star could have done at the time…
…He went to Philadelphia and cut a soul album. And a damn good one, at that.
I guess what Bowie did back then (’cause, you know, I wasn’t around) is akin to what artists like Chris Cornell are doing with guys like Timbaland. Toying with an “urban” sound in order to test the parameters of their audience, to see if the fans will go along for the ride. Whatever way you look at it, the Thin White Duke did a bang-up job. Perhaps it’s because my initial exposure to music was through the portals of soul and disco, but Young Americans remains my favorite Bowie album (although, for the sake of honesty, I’ve only listened to a handful of his work prior to this album-of the four Bowie albums I own, this is the oldest by about half a decade).
Part of the reason this album succeeds is because of the collaborators Bowie aligned himself with. The crack band was anchored by Carlos Alomar on guitar. Alomar’s funky licks invigorate songs like the strolling Right and the hit single Fame. David Sanborn’s recognizable sax livens up several songs, including the now-classic title track, and the prominent background vocalists are led by a youngster who went by the name of Luther Vandross.
The result is a great album that ‘s not exactly disco (the tempos are too slow) but has much in common with the Philly soul that was popular around that time (which I guess makes sense, considering it was a soul album made in Philly). While David Bowie isn’t exactly Teddy Pendergrass or Eddie LeVert from a vocal standpoint, he actually carries these songs well. It’s not an ill fit, like when certain other artists try to incorporate soul music into their sound.
Bowie’s obviously indulging something of a Beatles fix on this album as well. Not only does Fame feature John Lennon on background vocals (Lennon also co-wrote the song, which is by far the funkiest thing a Beatle has ever penned), but the album’s title track quotes A Day in the Life. Bowie also delivers a dreamy take on Across the Universe. Apologies to John, but Bowie’s voice, fuller than Lennon’s, makes his my favorite version of this particular song. Anyone who was watching the Grammys’ all star rendition of Across the Universe a few years back and wondered why David Bowie’s voice was coming out of Scott Weiland’s face, well obviously the STP frontman was using this as a guide.
Other winners on this set include the slinky and sexy Fascination, the dramatic Win (which is as much a showcase for the background singers as it is for Bowie), and Right, which almost sounds like a James Brown homage in slow motion. Featuring some serious interplay with his backup singers and some grunting and groaning on Bowie’s part, hearing this would explain why the Godfather of Soul took the backing track to Fame and re-cut it with his band as Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved).
I’m not the world’s foremost David Bowie authority, so I don’t know where Young Americans stands in the pantheon of critically adored Bowie reviews. Frankly, I don’t care. This is my damn review. Of the Bowie albums I’ve heard, this is my favorite. Again, it might be because I come from a soul music background, maybe it’s because it’s that damn good. Young Americans finds Bowie making one of his many stylistic transitions and succeeding with that transition through and through.