One metatextual break-up record succeeds another: but here David Bowie is breaking up with himself, and pop is breaking up around him, its structures fragmenting and sickening as the track lurches on. The music is a patchwork – snips and echoes of riffs or phrases jabbing across each other, somehow resolving into a song. Bowie himself starts to sing unsustainably high, his vocal line tumbling down and melting on re-entry – “Do you remember a guy that’s been” sounds like “Duhyuh remember agatherspear…”. Where you can decipher them the words are paranoid cut-ups or just nonsense playground rhymes like the chorus – “funk to funky”?
Though actually something does smell bad round here – this isn’t spectral pop, it’s zombie pop, shambling and corpse-cold. In the most horrible sequence, Bowie sounds like he’s broken out of the song, like he’s confessing something true, even if that’s only paralysis – “Never done good things, I never done bad things, I never did anything out of the blue”. But behind him the backing vocalists are zombies too, zombies of himself, and when he ends his phrase with a soulful “Whoa-oh”, the zombie Bowie echoes it hollowly: the most basic gesture of rock meaning reduced to a lifeless parodic twitch.
So Major Tom thought he was starring in an Arthur C Clarke story and found himself in a Philip K Dick one by mistake, and the result is oddly magnificent. Why is Bowie doing this? To kill off the 1970s, like everyone else was trying to. And by that he meant his 70s, because Bowie’s pop was always strongest when it was just him in his hall of mirrors. “Ashes To Ashes” is as self-conscious as records get, of course, but still hits hard outside its solipsistic context – its portrait of a crack-up is abstract enough to mean something, something indistinct but grim and real. Helps that it’s studded with great lines and moments: “WE GOT A MESSAGE FOR THE ACTION MEN!”; “Sordid details following…”; and the creepy nursery rhyme coda, as the song tucks itself into foetal position and tries to shut the inner enemy out. One of those records that could have, maybe should have, brought the curtain down on a career.