This week’s NME magazine is a special lyrics issue where we dissect songs by Richey Edwards, PJ Harvey, Jarvis Cocker, Bruce Springsteen and Mike Skinner among others. Pick it up today. It’s awesome.
Are there lyrics that affect you every time you hear them? You know, the kind of writing that hits so powerfully it can make you walk taller, cry or even feel nauseous? David Bowie’s ‘Word On A Wing’ does that to me. Bowie wrote it while he was making the Nicolas Roeg film The Man Who Fell To Earth and taking loads of cocaine. It was a time he described as ‘psychological terror’ and ‘the darkest days of his life’. He was even rumoured to have contacted a white witch in New York to exorcise his demons.
While I can’t relate to all that, its key theme hits me personally more than any other lyric. ‘Word On A Wing’ (nestled in the middle of the 1976 album ‘Station To Station’) is a strange and ambiguous hymn directed to some kind of higher power, the resurrection reference in “Sweet name, you’re born once again for me” suggesting a Christian God. On the one hand, it’s a beseeching cry for help: “Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing”. At times it is submissive: “Just as long as I can walk I’ll walk beside you, I’m alive in you”. But at others, it is almost sardonic, with hints of truculence. “Just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well” is his caveat and it’s sung with guts. Later, Bowie denounced any theory about a conversion.
As anyone who has had an unusually religious upbringing will know, it’s impossible to shake off that tension, confusion and doubt. It is a pollen stain – kind of annoying, kind of beautiful at times. If you’re taught there is always something more, you never really stop looking. I first heard the song ten years ago just as I was trying to decide for myself what the hell was going on with the universe, aside from the world-view I had been taught was right. For me, the ‘Word On A Wing’ lyrics balance on that weird battle and there’s solace in identification. Bowie claims he’s “trying to hard to fit among” God’s scheme of things, but the most strengthening part of the song is the heavy repetition of “Ooh, ready to shape the scheme of things”, suggesting he’s actually in charge of his own destiny and keen to take control. See what I mean by confusing?
Bowie has said that he wrote ‘Word On A Wing’ as a “protection”, “written to safeguard” himself. Musically, it is as gorgeous and gentle as a cashmere blanket. “Sweet name, you’re born once against for me” is one of the most soothing lines of melody I’ve ever heard. But there’s an undercurrent of melancholy and desperation provided by a minor key shift, which seals the deal for me. It mirrors the dualism and complexity of faith. My relationship with the song is similarly bipolar; sometimes I absolutely can’t listen to it.
I’d love to hear some of your stories or reasons why you like a particular lyric. Let me know below.