Anniversary Album: 45 Years of ‘Lodger,’ the Final Third of David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy

The three records that David Bowie made in the final years of the ’70s stand not only among his most influential, but also among the most influential by any artist. To close out this loosely connected trilogy of albums, Bowie released Lodger in May 1979.

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Forty-five years later, we might not be any closer to fully understanding what Bowie had in mind with this wild mélange of styles and moods. But we do know that Lodger continues to transfix us. Here’s how this strange but alluring record came to be.

Berlin in Spirit

Lodger has been lumped in with the Bowie albums Low and “Heroes,” both of which were released in 1977, as part of the Berlin trilogy. The former two albums were actually recorded in Berlin. Lodger has a lot in common with those albums in ambition and spirit of experimentation, which is why Bowie lumped it in with the other two, even though it was recorded elsewhere.

Bowie only got around to making Lodger once he went on a massive 1978 world tour, where he played the music from the preceding two albums. Coming off that, he headed to Switzerland with many of the same cast of characters from the previous two records, including his experimental partner in crime Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti.

Bowie essentially kept the core rhythm section of the other two albums for Lodger, but he did add some new players, most notably guitarist Adrian Belew. After that collection of musicians took care of the basic foundational playing in Switzerland, Bowie finished off the sessions for the record in New York in March 1979.

Flash Cards and Instrument Switching

Lodger is characterized by much of the spirit of derring-do that had pulsed through the previous two records. If anything, the twists and turns thrown at the players may have been turned up a few notches. After witnessing the extraordinary results these techniques had produced in the first two albums of the trilogy, Bowie, Eno, and Visconti were game for more.

So more it was. Eno again used his Oblique Strategies cards to force the musicians out of their comfort zones. Players were encouraged to switch instruments. Belew said that he was asked to play to prerecorded backing tracks without any previous knowledge of what he was about to hear.

Bowie also had no lyrics in place while the songs were being composed, only getting to them after the fact. In later interviews, Visconti expressed dismay over how the New York studios used to put the record to bed were insufficient for the sound the men wanted. Not long before Bowie passed away, Visconti remixed Lodger, and Bowie was thrilled with the result.

Looking at Lodger

Low and “Heroes” are challenging records for sure, but Lodger takes that vibe to extreme levels. There aren’t many ready-made radio hooks, as even singles “Boys Keep Swinging'” and “DJ” are somewhat cacophonous and filled with misdirection. The album sort of sounds like the work of 10 different bands, one for each song, with Bowie’s arch vocals the only unifying element.

And that’s kind of the thrill of it. The way that, for instance, the icy textures of “African Fight Night” lead to the futuristic Buddy Holly vibe of “Move On.” Or how the slightly unhinged “Look Back in Anger” rolls into the thundering propulsion of “Boys Keep Swinging.” Even in a lyrical sense, Bowie never settles too long into any themes or motifs before moving on, even in the space of a single song.

That’s what makes Lodger somehow fulfilling and frustrating all at once. Listening to it is like trying to breathlessly catch up to Bowie through all these textures and musical settings, which is ultimately an exercise in futility. With this album, you never do quite pin him down, but the thrill of the chase is undeniable.

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Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

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