When David Bowie released his twenty-fourth studio album, The Next Day, in 2013, a journalist asked him to explain his thinking behind the new songs, each of which featured unusual, cryptic lyrics and surreal imagery.
Bowie responded by sending the journalist a list of 42 words which supposedly provided the framework for the critically-acclaimed album. Here are those 42 words:
Effigies … Indulgences … Anarchist … Violence … Chthonicum … Intimidation … Vampyric … Pantheon … Succubus … Hostage … Transference … Identity … Mauer … Interface … Flitting … Isolation … Revenge … Osmosis … Crusade … Tyrant … Domination … Indifference … Miasma … Pressgang … Displaced … Flight … Resettlement … Funereal … Glide … Trace … Balkan … Burial … Reverse … Manipulate … Origin … Text … Traitor … Urban … Comeuppance …. Tragic … Nerve … Mystification.
Quite a confusing lyrical framework for an album that ended up including song titles such as: ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’, ‘Love Is Lost’, ‘Where Are We Now?’, ‘Valentine’s Day’ and ‘The Next Day’.
Maybe the answer can be found in a 2008 interview with Bowie. In it he described how he often came up with interesting lyric lines by employing the ‘cut-up’ writing technique used by postmodernist author William S. Burroughs in his controversial novel Naked Lunch.
‘Cut-up’ is a literary technique designed to add an element of chance to the creative process. It involves taking a finished line of text and cutting it into pieces—usually with just one or two words on each piece. The resulting pieces are then rearranged to create a brand new text.
The cut-up concept can be traced back to the Dadaists of the 1920s, but it was developed further in the early 1950s by painter, writer and sound poet Brion Gysin—and then popularized in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Burroughs.
David Bowie explained: “I used it for igniting anything that may have been in my imagination … You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects, creating a kind of ‘story ingredients’ list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections, then mix them up and reconnect them.
“You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations,” he said. “You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”
The ‘cut-up’ technique is also said to have influenced Kurt Cobain’s songwriting. And Thom Yorke applied a similar method on Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A. Yorke reportedly wrote single lines, put them into a hat, and drew them out at random while the band rehearsed the songs.
Here’s Bowie explaining his cut-up technique in the 1975 BBC TV documentary Cracked Actor …
In the early 1990s, Bowie developed a more advanced version of his ‘cut-up’ technique when he teamed up with Gracenote co-founder Ty Roberts to create the Verbasizer—a custom program for Apple’s Mac which is now regarded as an early form of AI-based songwriting.
The Verbasizer randomized portions of Bowie’s inputted text sentences to create new ones with new meanings and moods. It would cut up and reassemble Bowie’s words electronically, much like he had done with paper, scissors and glue back in the 1970s. Bowie made use of the Verbasizer to create the lyrics and liner notes for his 1995 album Outside.
“What you end up with is a real kaleidoscope of meanings and topic and nouns and verbs all sort of slamming into each other,” Bowie explained in this 1997 documentary about the Verbasizer …
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