Title: Word on a Wing
Artist: David Bowie
Album: Station to Station
Recently, I loaned (well, rented) my vocal talent to an Episcopal mass that was centered around the music of David Bowie. As Bowie has made a career of being noncommittal in just about every way—even his gender is frequently blurred—I was surprised to find so much (fairly specific) religious imagery in his music, especially prevalent on the album Station to Station. In fact, the "stations" of the title are not train or space stations, but the Stations of the Cross!
Then I found out the whole album was written under extreme duress fueled by excessive cocaine use and it all made sense. Hey-O! Nevertheless, as Bowie himself said, "The passion of the song was genuine..." and this is not hard to believe when measuring the dramatic and moving vocal performance contained in "Word on a Wing." When Bowie croons "Sweet name, you're born once again for me," you can be forgiven for believing he means it and maybe even for believing it yourself. Like so much religious music, it's filled with a fervor that stirs believers and confounds bystanders.
But also like so much religious music, the devil is in the details. (sorry, couldn't resist) The song is structured to tug at your heartstrings and direct you to the message. Take the melody of the opening verse, which starts on a low B (sinking as low as G#) and gradually wends its way to G# above, a rising melody that is uplifting both figuratively and literally. The chorus begins with a leap to D#, which is supported by angelic upper harmonies. In the particularly gorgeous third go-round, the lead vocal goes it alone and the choir is offset rhythmically before Bowie delivers the "just because I believe..." line. And then just when you think this melody can't ascend any further, it does, taking the harmony with it as the tonal center shifts upward by a step. This section plays as an all-out appeal to God, with Bowie offering his best Gethsemane moment, "kneel(ing) and offer(ing his) word on a wing." When the breathy (breathless?) falsetto finally arrives, the melody has traversed nearly two octaves while trying to reach the kingdom beyond the clouds. It's an exhausting and, in many ways, inspiring three minutes and we're not even halfway through.
I don't mean any of this as criticism and I'm not as jaded as you think. This is the power of music and it's why it's such a central force in religious ceremonies. While retrospectively calling the song "a cry for help," I think David Bowie believed what he was singing and his skill as a vocalist allows the message to be heard more clearly. When I sang the song in a church, I sang it with the same passion despite being spiritually disconnected from the message. This is the job of any actor/singer/performer: deliver the song with conviction, period. Believing (or not) is for the listener.