The sequencing of Outside was willfully haphazard. It wasn’t worth worrying about, Bowie and Eno said; in the CD era people would cherry-pick their favorite songs and create their own versions of the album. But occasionally, as in any random process, little eddies of apparent design crop up. One such moment is the pairing of the minimalist “Wishful Beginnings” with the maximalist, but somehow kindred, “We Prick You.”
Neither one is overtly connected to the album’s “narrative.” “Wishful” could be a sequel to “Strangers When We Meet,” chronicling the breakup’s aftermath:
I’m no longer your golden boy….
We had such
But we lived
I’m sorry little girl
Sorry little girl
So so sorry little girl
The pain must feel like snow
The spacious soundscape recalls — not for the first or last time in Bowie’s work — the Walker Brothers’ “The Electrician,” a lodestar of his for many years.
Though credited to the group, “The Electrician” is really a Scott Walker solo joint. According to an exegesis by Robert Webb,
Directing his venom at the country of his birth, Scott’s disembodied lyrics concern American torture specialists, or “mechanics,” in Latin America in the Seventies. It’s a disturbing account of gleeful torturers extracting confessions from their victims with an almost sexually sadistic enthusiasm.
And here I can see a direct connection to “We Prick You,” which likewise evokes a sexually charged torture session, some combination of De Sade and Brazil. It is also unapologetically goofy, at times coming off like an update of “The Laughing Gnome.” And the cadence of the vocal turns repetitions of the title into “You wee prick, you wee prick,” a clever iteration of a very low form of humor. But somehow it all clicks. Chris O’Leary’s take is characteristically on point:
[Bowie’s] lyric shares the density of the arrangement: his refrain lines alone are a dirty joke; a Merchant of Venice nod (“if you prick us, do we not bleed?”); a prosecutor at the trial of Leon Blank (“tell the truth!”); a reference to the alchemical symbol of Christ being pierced with a spear, and to body scarification, inspired by Ron Athey’s Four Scenes in a Harsh Life, where Athey carved patterns into the flesh of another performer. A compression of scattered ideas into a tight ball of sound, “We Prick You” is a minor masterpiece.
“Prick” became a live favorite of David’s, at least for a few years. In this performance he often looks, I assume intentionally, like some kind of hipster clown; and as we all know there’s nothing as scary as a clown at night.