Going now in chronological order of first recording, as established by O’Leary’s Ashes to Ashes, the next song up is “Atomica.” This was one I never thought much about at the time. Left off the album and eventually released on the EP The Next Day Extra, it felt like an aborted stab at what eventually became “The Next Day”; everything about it fairly screamed “outtake.”
Listening to it today, though, I find myself quite enjoying it. Maybe it’s just refreshing after the horrifying 70s fare I was subjected to over breakfast in Trinidad (“Horse with No Name” followed by the Peter, Paul & Mary version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane”). I’m still not a big fan of the gank bass, but used sparingly as it is here, it kind of works. And this unofficial video, put together with obvious love by a fan named Pietro, helps:
Looking at the lyrics, most of which get lost in the noise, it seems to be some sort of meta take on rock stardom, beginning thusly:
I’m just a rock star stabbing away…
I’ll take the lead for another day
A modern scholar
Just let me know if I sing too much
He then blurts “When you’re head over heels and the magic is there” as quickly as humanly possible, which could be considered a case of singing too much. The rest of the pre-chorus is repetitions of the word “impossible” punctuated with asides like “And when the police take me away” and “It wasn’t you/it was Mothers’ Day.”
It’s all rather rococo, but by the chorus we’re back to basics: “let’s get this show on the road” is rhymed with “let’s rock till we explode.” I am reminded of “Comfortably Numb” (which, remember, Bowie once sang on with David Gilmour). The drugs have kicked in, and “come on, it’s time to go.”
By the bridge he’s really feeling his oats; “I hold myself like a god,” he says, presumably ironically. “Atomica” may in fact be a parody of a rock song; but if so, it is one that — á la Spinal Tap or Ween — so much becomes the thing it parodies that you can’t tell the difference.
In the last verse the “rock star stabbing away” becomes “a pop star chopping away.” I can’t help relating this to something I’ve written about before — what it must be like for an artist like, say, David Bowie, who outlived their period of divine inspiration and had to become someone who works at music for a living.
“Let me know if I sing too much” becomes “…if I talk too much,” and I feel like “think too much” is implied there; maybe “Atomica” is about an artist who keeps being told to dumb it down, and keeps trying, but can’t pull it off. That’s the problem with these big brains of ours;1you can never quite shut them up.