Station to Station opens with a synthesized train bumping along the ten-minute title track, and the disembodied voice of a romantic Englishman crooning, “. . . the return of the thin white duke.” The form is familiar: monster chording, pointed vocals and racing arrangements. The scenario builds until Bowie cuts away to the second phase of the song, a wrenching piece of power rock peppered with questions: “And who will connect me with love?” and “Does my face show some kind of woe?” He may not be seriously committed to rock, but when the mood strikes it all comes flooding back. Always the actor, David Bowie can assume the role of rocker and make it work.
Unfortunately, his devotion to the role isn’t unwavering, and on songs like “Word on a Wing,” the bloodless angelic choir and childish soul piano cheapen the elegant, vaguely religious passion of the lyrics and lead vocal. Yet more often than not, the material on Station to Station presents the rock Young Americans forced us to believe would never surface again: “TVC 15,” which makes the listener lust for a lyric sheet, has the sort of nondisco drive missing from Bowie’s music since “Suffragette City.” “Transition,” Bowie purrs, “transmission,” and the beat becomes a series of minor explosions. “Golden Years” has a more appealing surface and its lush R&B smorgasbord of vocal styles, whistles and classic first-line hook (“Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere”) make it Bowie’s most seductive self-indulgence since Pin Ups.
Still, the obsessively passionate conviction of his earlier works is missing. It remains the thoughtfully professional effort of a style-conscious artist whose ability to write and perform demanding rock & roll exists comfortably alongside his fascination for diverse forms. It’s a much better album than we’d been led to believe Bowie was willing to make, but while there’s little doubt about his skill, one wonders how long he’ll continue wrestling with rock at all.