David Bowie started the 1980’s on one of the greatest album runs in pop history, and ended them in a state of commercial and artistic obsolescence. Where singles like “Look Back in Anger,” “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fame” helped to set the decade’s musical agenda, by 1989 Bowie was fronting a mediocre noise-rock outfit and aping the sound of younger bands like Sonic Youth and the Pixies. How did this trend-setter of all trend-setters—Mr. Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke—wind up as a pale imitation of other musicians?
Most critics would probably point to Let’s Dance, his 1983 collection of over-produced dance pop, by way of an answer. Where 1980’s Scary Monsters had wedded songs of fear and alienation to noisy guitar hooks, Dance is all straightforward rock, with slick ‘80s production values and largely uninspiring lyrics. Even with monster hits like “Modern Love,” “China Girl” and the title track (not to mention Stevie Ray Vaughan‘s peerless guitar playing), the album sounds positively anemic when compared to its 70’s predecessors.
Yet as Rolling Stone makes clear, even the modest charms of Dance would come to be sorely missed in the years ahead:
[F]ans debated whether Let's Dance was a stylistic triumph, a pop sellout, or just a table-setter for future glories. But it's safe to say nobody suspected it would go down as Bowie's last stand. Still only 36, the most iconic and influential active artist in rock, Bowie seemed to lose his touch overnight, wheezing unpleasantly through the rest of the decade.
How, then, is one to make sense of Baal, Bowie’s incredible extended player from 1982? These four-and-a-half songs find the singer an entire galaxy away from the rock futurism of his Berlin Trilogy and Scary Monsters—and even further from the world-conquering arena pop he was to release just ten months later. In marked contrast to the stream-of-consciousness surrealism of earlier albums like Station to Station or“Heroes”, Baal is rooted in an earthy, traditionalist sensibility. (Even latter-day “throwback” albums like Heathen and Reality sound futuristic when compared with the archaic arrangements heard on “Baal’s Hymn” and “The Drowned Girl”.) And where later songs like “Never Let Me Down” betray an earnest romanticism, “Remembering Marie A.” is surreptitious and subversive. In spite of David Bowie’s reputation as an innovative songwriter, it was on this largely-forgotten EP of Brecht covers that the artist achieved his most dramatic departure as an artist.
As the EP’s full title suggests, David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal was the result of an acting gig in Alan Clarke’s 1982 BBC production of Brecht’s first theatre piece. As the titular anti-hero, Bowie played a mysterious and dissipated poet who serially corrupts the denizens of a sleazy bar called Nachtwolke (“night cloud”). The work contains five musical interludes, with self-accompaniment on banjo. Also featured are the ballads “Remembering Marie A,” “Ballad of the Adventurers,” and “The Drowned Girl,” as well as a short, half-minute-long ditty called “The Dirty Song.”
As they are sung in Clarke’s teleplay, the Baal numbers amount to little more than cynical affect and innuendo; Bowie’s singing style certainly complements his portrayal of a dissipated letch, but Brecht’s lyrics are robbed of their power in the process. Luckily, in September 1981, while the play was still in rehearsal, Bowie and producer Toni Visconti booked some time in Berlin’s Hansa Studios and committed new versions of the Baal songs to tape. Despite his frosty relationship with record label RCA, Bowie was eager to see the material gain an official release the following year. As Visconti later recalled, “[Bowie] wanted to record [Baal] as a souvenir. [He] said it wasn’t going to be any big deal and probably wouldn’t sell, but he felt it should be recorded for posterity.”
Composer Dominic Muldowney was brought in to write entirely new orchestral arrangements, and great pains were taken to replicate the sound and feel of Brecht’s original performances, with Visconti going so far as to draft an entire 15-piece German pit band. For the EP’s opener, Bowie, Visconti and Muldowney combined all five interludes into a single track entitled “Baal’s Hymn.” Set to a bludgeoning thud of drums and violin, each vignette presents a chapter in the poet’s violent and debaucherous life, and Bowie sings with an impossible mixture of chilling candor and ghoulish warmth:
So through hospital, cathedral, whiskey bar
Baal kept moving onwards and just let things go
When Baal's tired, boys, Baal cannot fall far
He will have his sky down there below
Where Bowie the actor had played up his character’s smugness and disaffection, Bowie the singer reads these lines with nuance and even tenderness. While it is true that Baal is a nihilist, who mocks any pretension that there is a “higher meaning” in life, there are moments in the “Hymn” when he betrays a hidden sense of idealism. The song’s last two verses, for instance, forecast Baal’s own death, and Bowie sings them in a state of resentful amazement—amazement because the sky, in its alien massiveness, lends to human life a delicious absurdity; resentment because its wondrous beauty is an affront to Baal’s nihilistic beliefs:
When the dark womb drags him down to its prize
What's the world still mean to Baal, he's overfed
So much sky is lurking still behind his eyes
He'll just have enough sky when he's dead
Once the Earth's dark womb engulfed the rotting Baal
Even then the sky was up there, quiet and pale
Naked, young, immensely marvelous
Like Baal loved it when he lived with us
On “Remembering Marie A.”, this tension is even more profound. Over a loose, pillowy arrangement of piano, strings, guitar and woodwinds, Baal recalls a young girl he kissed long ago, as well as the cloud that was floating above them:
Above us in the shining summer heaven
There was a cloud my eyes dwelled long upon
It was quite white and very high above us
Then I looked up And found that it had gone
At first, this cloud seems fairly innocuous, an evocative detail to complement the lovers’ tryst. Only gradually does the unsettling reality become clear: this cloud is actually the object of affection, and the girl is only a romantic backdrop.
As for the kiss, I’d have long ago forgot it
But for the cloud that floated in the sky
I know that still and shall forever know it
It was quite white and moved in very high
It may be that the plum trees still are blooming
That woman's seventh child may now be there
And yet that cloud had only bloomed for minutes
When I looked up It vanished on the air
In this way Brecht has upended the symbolic order of romantic balladry, even while carefully preserving its form. Baal’s story is unsettling precisely because it is so uncontroversial: the lover has expressed the “right” feelings in the “right” manner, and yet the assumed meaning of the sentiment has been turned on its head. Marie A. is evoked only to underscore her ultimate irrelevance, a fact which is artfully camouflaged by the conceit of the cloud. Bowie, for his part, sings each line with just enough warmth to sound convincing and just enough irony to underscore the inherent cruelty. Here, as on “Hymn,” the artist reveals a preternatural gift for interpretive singing, stressing all the right lines and taking all the right liberties.
Bowie had spent the preceding decade inventing a litany of musical personas, so it is perhaps not surprising that he would find in Baal a good fit. What is surprising is the intimacy of the performance. Where his own songwriting has so often been fragmentary and surreal, Brecht lyrics are blunt and economical, with a strong sense of character and subject matter. Bowie is clearly thrilled to escape his usual (self-imposed) constraints, and invests his line readings with an intelligence and empathy only hinted at on earlier recordings.
Baal’s third track, “The Drowned Girl”, is the ultimate showcase for this interpretive power. What began on the page as a mere sketch becomes a rich and near-operatic tone poem. Over a mournful backdrop of guitar, strings and oboe, we follow the remains of a human body as they twist and wind their way down a riverbank. As ever, expressionistic images of the sky dominate the landscape:
Once she had drowned and started her slow descent
Down the streams to where the great rivers broaden
Oh, the opal sky shone most magnificent
As if it was acting as her body's guardian
At each stage of the journey, we can sense the eerie blackness of the water, and the corpse bobbing up and down. Dominic Muldowney would confess years later to using this recording to teach younger composers:
[Bowie]’s singing about ‘her slow descent’ below the water, right down in the bass baritone. Then halfway through he jumps up the octave. […] When he sings up to the word ‘smoke’ it’s got smoke all around it, it’s cloudy. Then we get to the ‘k’ of ‘smoke’ and you can see again. It’s an absolute tutorial in how to paint a text.
When the drowned girl is caught in the “slimy grip” of duckweed, Bowie’s lethargic delivery slows time down to a crawl. The listener is startled to discover that the entire performance is less two and a half minutes long.
Bowie would cover the work of many other venerated songwriters over the next twenty years—Lieber and Stoller, Brian Wilson, even Black Francis—but with none of the power or purposefulness on display here. Listening to “Hymn” or “Ballad of the Adventures,” it is difficult not to consider what might have been. What if Baal had been followed by an entire album of Brecht material, or a more expansive exploration of German theatre songs? Or what if he had rekindled his early interest in the work of Jacques Brel, and recorded a cycle of covers a la Scott Walker?
Such “what if” scenarios are potentially never-ending, certainly futile, and completely irresistible. Within the modest constraints of a cover EP, Bowie gave some of his best vocal performances ever, in the service of some ferociously strong material. Muldowney’s rangy, cabaret-tinged arrangements were an unprecedented musical backdrop, creating a sound and sensibility that Bowie would try just this once and then abandon forever. In light of his subsequent 30- year slide into MOR pop and noise rock, the sheer existence of Baal now seems slightly miraculous: for a few months in 1982, the newest Bowie release was a set of ballads written by a long-deceased German playwright most listeners had probably never heard of. The globe-conquering success Let’s Dance and Tonight would quickly consign this EP to curio status, an artistic dead end. Nevertheless, Baal remains one of the most fascinating and rewarding records of Bowie’s entire career.