Avenue B , Iggy Pop (Virgin/America).
Hours … , David Bowie (Virgin/America).
Vagabond Ways , Marianne Faithfull (It Records/Virgin U.K.).
James Jewell Osterberg (Iggy Pop), David Robert Jones (David Bowie) and Marianne Faithfull (Marianne Faithfull) are all 53 years old. Each has just released a record that confronts the state commonly referred to as middle age. “It was the winter of my 50th year,” begins Iggy Pop’s Avenue B , “When it hit me–I was really alone and there wasn’t a hell of a lot of time left.”
This confession is immediately followed by Iggy Pop singing, in a song called “Nazi Girlfriend”: “I want to fuck her on the floor/ Among my books of ancient lore.” If the song were a Neanderthal electric-guitar number, it would refute Iggy Pop’s newfound sincerity. Instead the song is played on an acoustic guitar. Iggy Pop even puckers up and whistles a quiet solo in the middle of the thing.
A gentler, wiser Iggy Pop is not an Iggy Pop gone soft. He still displays his washboard gut in publicity photos, although his skin looks old. Creepy. His voice remains quietly dangerous. A few of the songs are electric and fierce, reminding us of Iggy Pop’s Stooges heritage. Most of the songs concern Iggy Pop’s younger girlfriends, kids that speak French or Spanish. Yet in another recitation, Iggy Pop reveals that one actually called him “Daddy.” He spits the word out in embarrassed disgust. His pathos is both chilling and touching. If this sincerity is just an act, it still works theatrically. By magnificently re-creating his “pop” persona, Iggy Pop has created a semi-masterpiece. I hedge only because once the power of this new “poignant” Iggy Pop becomes familiar, a few songs begin to seem slightly ho-hum. But that’s O.K. The best way to appreciate this album is to play it late at night and then just pass out.
Now for the autumnal Mr. Bowie. Way back when, the man appropriated the raw power, dark eloquence and oblique recording strategies of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Brian Eno. Who is left to borrow from? Mr. Bowie’s album Hours … reveals the man’s lack of pockets to pick. The album’s 10 songs–two more if you are willing to wait eight “hours” while the thing downloads from your modem–are radio-friendly pleasantries awash in retro-80’s keyboards, “soul” background singers and a little electric guitar.
The songs’ lyrics read like high-school verse. “All the clouds are made of glass,” he observes in “What’s Really Happening?” “And they’re slowly sinking/ Falling like the shattered past.” Wait. Another song, “Seven,” goes like this: “I’ve got seven days to live my life/ Or seven ways to die.” That means nothing. The album’s handful of songs about a failed marriage fail even more. Banalities are repeated over and over: “I danced with you too long.” Another time, “What’s really happening? What tore us apart?” The only good line in the album (in “Survive”) is, “You’re the great mistake I never made.” Should we praise him for it, or assume he swiped it from some 40’s torch song, the way he stole his catchy “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” from Iggy Pop’s “Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell”?
On Mr. Bowie’s one great album, Hunky Dory , he sang, “I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought/ And I ain’t got the power any more” (“Quicksand”). David, you’re still sinking. And you haven’t had the power for years.
As scandalous as Mr. Bowie or Iggy Pop were in their prime, Ms. Faithfull beat them both with her wicked ways. The story of the cops busting a drug party and finding Ms. Faithfull sprawled naked on a rug while Mick Jagger ate a Mars bar is one of pop music’s most enduring myths. (The Mars bar was placed between Ms. Faithfull’s legs.) On the first and title song of Vagabond Ways , she sings, “I like to drink and take drugs/ I love sex, and I move around a lot.” The next song is Roger Waters’ “Incarceration of a Flower Child,” a gaudy Pink Floydish number about a burnt-out hippie foreseeing: “Things will get cold in the 1970’s.” The next six cuts are less dramatic. They’re lovely numbers concerning lost romance and middle-aged regret –many co-written by Ms. Faithfull herself, along with a cover of “For Wanting You,” by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and “Marathon Kiss,” which was written and produced by Daniel Lanois. Mr. Lanois’ presence defines these songs. It’s likely the producer of Vagabond Ways , Mark Howard, borrowed (or appropriated) Mr. Lanois’ trademark high-tech, spacy vibe for all of them. What keeps the songs from going maudlin is Ms. Faithfull’s cracking Cruella de Vil voice. “I was born like this,” she sings in her cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song.” “I had no choice. I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” She sings that verse without cracking up like Mr. Cohen did before her.
In the autumn of her career, Ms. Faithfull has made an album as culturally important as her 1979 “hit” Broken English , while being as musically satisfying as her best record up till now, Strange Weather (1987). Yet this CD is only available as an import. Americans, take to the streets.