It's a Concept Album built around a character named The Thin White Duke, a character Bowie thought up while writing a story called "The Return of the Thin White Duke" during the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth, a still of which is used for the album cover. This eventually resulted in this music album, influenced by Krautrock music, which would be explored much closer in the Berlin albums that followed. The best known song from the album is "Golden Years".
It was recorded in Los Angeles while Bowie was suffering a full-blown cocaine-induced psychotic breakdown and had just finished appearing in the Cult Classic The Man Who Fell to Earth. He claimed in interviews he remembered nothing about the recording other than describing the guitar sound he wanted on the title track to the session musician, but there are many stories about his behaviour at the time.
The album, its accompanying tour, and a handful of interviews Bowie gave around the time of its release were the subject of controversy, as Bowie, apparently Lost in Character as the Duke,note made statements supporting Fascism and made a gesture at a Victoria Station concert that was interpreted as a Nazi salute (however, Bowie claimed he was photographed in the middle of a wave to the audience, and people who were in the audience at the time, including Gary Numan, have supported this explanation). It is unlikely that Bowie ever sincerely believed in Fascism: he was working with a racially integrated band at this time, and he chose to cover "Wild Is the Wind" on this album due to his admiration of and personal friendship with Nina Simone, an American singer, pianist, and civil rights activist who had also covered the song. Later, in 1983, he criticised both racism against Aboriginal people in Australia and MTV's unwillingness to play videos by Black artists at the time, which is credited with helping enable the subsequent mega-stardom of black artists artists such as Prince and Michael Jackson, both of whom had previously faced issues with getting their music videos on the air.note The controversy over Bowie's behaviour during the Thin White Duke era ultimately died down to a large extent as evidence mounted that Bowie himself was neither a racist nor a Fascist. "Golden Years" was also such a hit on the R&B charts that Bowie was one of the few white artists invited to perform on Soul Train.
Despite the controversy, Station to Station was critically and commercially successful upon release, peaking at No. 5 on the UK Albums chart and No. 3 on the Billboard 200, as well as being certified gold in the UK, the US, and Canada. Its stature has only increased since then; it is now often cited as one of Bowie's best albums. It was listed at No. 324 in Rolling Stone's Rolling Stone: 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, being elevated to No. 52 on the 2020 revision. That same year, Acclaimed Music would rank the album at No. 335 on its dynamic list of the 3000 most critically praised albums.
Station to Station was supported by three singles upon its initial release: "Golden Years", "TVC 15", and "Stay". A heavily truncated version of the Title Track was also released as a promo single in France. Bowie's cover of the Johnny Mathis song "Wild is the Wind" was later released as a single in 1981 to promote the Greatest Hits Album Changestwobowie, on which it was included.
- "Station to Station" (10:14)
- "Golden Years" (4:00)
- "Word on a Wing" (6:03)
- "TVC 15" (5:33)
- "Stay" (6:15)
- "Wild Is the Wind"note (6:02)
Bonus Tracks (1991 Reissue):
- "Word on a Wing (live)"
- "Stay (live)"
This week troped past me so slowly; the days fell on their knees...:
- Alliterative Title: "Station to Station."
- Anti-Love Song: A recurring theme throughout the album; true to the Thin White Duke's sociopathic nature, most of the lyrics on the album are made to read like love songs, but in context come off as coldly calculated and insincere.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: The Thin White Duke, a cold-hearted cocaine addict with a taste for fascism who spends time "throwing darts in lovers' eyes".
- Big Bad: The Thin White Duke, who is a heartless Fascist.
- Breather Episode: "Word on a Wing", just mildly so; while still fairly moody in tone, the lyrical content is much more honest; Bowie himself even confirmed that it's the only track on the album whose lyrics were written in earnest.
- Cover Version: "Wild Is the Wind", the title song from a 1957 film. It was originally recorded by Johnny Mathis, though Bowie seems to have based his version on Nina Simone's, as discussed below under Lost in Character.
- Darker and Edgier: This album takes the "plastic soul" of Young Americans and directs it in a more dour, brooding direction with heavier emphasis on experimentation and occultism. The Thin White Duke was also a much, much more unpleasant figure than any of Bowie's other personae; getting Lost in Character and saying things he would later end up regretting was one of the reasons Bowie stopped creating such characters.
- Deliberately Monochrome: The original LP cover, pictured above, features a cropped black and white photograph taken on-set during the production of The Man Who Fell to Earth, featuring Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton entering his self-built return ship (the image is commonly mistaken to be an actual still from the film, but at no point is Thomas ever shown actually walking into the ship from that specific perspective). While the cropping appears to be a stylistic choice, particularly given the large white border and stark red text, the decision to make it black and white came from Bowie seeing a full-color version of the original image and finding the skyline behind the ship's door artificial-looking. While the 1984 RCA CD does retain the original cover art (albeit with the addition of their standard "RCA CD" logo in the corner), all CD reissues from the 1991 Rykodisc release to the 1999 EMI/Virgin one (the latter of which remained continuously in print for almost 20 years) replace it with the uncropped, full-color version◊ of the image. It wouldn't be until 2007 that a CD reissue of the album would revert back to the original cover art, via a Japan-only "mini LP" reissue; all later reissues since then have used the 1976 cover (with the sole exception of the Who Can I Be Now? [1974-1976] Boxed Set's copy of the 2010 remix, which uses a color-corrected version of the 1991 cover).
- Doo-wop: "Golden Years" is sung in this genre.
- Double Entendre: The title phrase; in the context of the Title Track, it refers not only to literal train stations (indicated by the steam engine sounds that open the song), but also the Stations of the Cross, tying into the album's heavy occult influences and twisting of Judeochristian imagery.
- Dreaming of Things to Come: "TVC 15", inspired by a drug hallucination from Iggy Pop in which he imagined the TV set was swallowing his girlfriend.
- Epic Rocking: The title track in particular, at 10 minutes 14 seconds, is the longest studio track he ever released (although the title track of ★ was originally intended to be longer, but thanks to iTunes' single length limitations, it was trimmed for release, as Bowie did not want to confuse listeners by having the single and album versions of the song be different). "Word on a Wing" (6:03), "Stay" (6:15), and "Wild Is the Wind" (6:02) also qualify.
- Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: One of the running themes behind the album is the Duke, who has no capacity for love or for any real emotion, struggling to grasp and convey romantic sentiment; there's a certain hollowness behind the surface emotions of these songs which exposes the Duke as The Sociopath. Bowie himself says that "Word on a Wing" is the only track not meant to sound coldly calculated and insincere.
- Eye Scream: In "Station to Station", the Thin White Duke has a habit of "throwing darts in lovers' eyes".
- Face on the Cover: Bowie's face shown from a distance, in a still from The Man Who Fell to Earth.
- God-Is-Love Songs: "Word on a Wing":"Lord, I kneel and offer you
My word on a wing
And I'm trying hard to fit
Among your scheme of things"
- Gratuitous Panning: The guitar sounds mimicking a steam engine in the introduction to the Title Track fade in on the right channel and gradually sweep into the left, as if an actual train is passing by the listener.
- Helium Speech: Some of the background singing during "Golden Years" is very high pitched.
- Incoming Ham: After the lengthy intro of "Station to Station", with bizarre sound effects mimicking a train with the Thin White Duke on board.The return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers' eyes.
- Kabbalah: The Title Track includes the line: "Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth", which are the top and bottom branches of the Tree of Life — which Bowie is shown drawing on the back cover of the 1991 CD reissue.
- Lost in Character: Getting lost in character as the Duke, whom Bowie himself described as "a nasty character indeed", was ultimately the reason he stopped portraying characters in his music. The Duke was, amongst other things, a fascist; while Bowie generally kept his political views to himself, his actual beliefs seem to have been somewhere between libertarianism and socialism (in any case, nearly as far from fascism as possible). After Bowie got so lost in character that he actually began espousing fascism himself, he realised he'd gone down a very dark rabbit hole and decided to stop using his music to portray characters entirely. He also appears to have considered this a wake-up call regarding his drug use; he would detox from cocaine after the tour for this album. It's probably also worth noting that his band at this point and for the rest of the '70s was racially integrated, including Puerto Rican rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar, African-American bassist George Murray, and African-American drummer Dennis Davis, which is a strong piece of evidence suggesting that the Duke did not reflect Bowie's actual beliefs. Additionally, Bowie was inspired to record "Wild Is the Wind" for this album largely because he was an admirer of Nina Simone, an African-American jazz singer known for her civil rights protest anthems who had previously recorded the song; he decided to record the song after meeting her in Los Angeles in 1975.
- Mind Screw: Good luck figuring out what the title track is about.
- Nazi Nobleman: The Duke is essentially this trope, and in fact Bowie described him as an "emotionless Aryan superman".
- Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: It combines a number of genres that weren't commonly combined at the time, as seen under New Sound Album. Some of them still aren't; arguably, no other record sounds quite like this one.
- New Sound Album: The album was a transitional album for Bowie; while still including the R&B, soul, and funk influence that permeated Young Americans, Station to Station was a more experimental album, with longer songs and some influence from Krautrock bands such as Neu! and Kraftwerk (particularly seen in the synthesizers and the motorik rhythms), which would be expanded further in the "Berlin trilogy" that followed. There is also some art rock, space rock, and Progressive Rock influence. The one label that can most accurately describe this unusually multifaceted sound is "avant-funk."
- Nostalgia Filter: "Golden Years":Nothing's gonna touch you in these golden years
- The Not-Remix: Received one in 2010 by co-producer Harry Maslin, first included on an audio DVD as part of a Boxed Set devoted to the album, before later being made available on CD, LP, and digitally exclusively as part of the Who Can I Be Now? [1974-1977] Boxed Set.
- One-Word Title: "Stay".
- Please Don't Leave Me: "Stay".Stay — that's what I meant to say or do something
But what I never say is
Stay this time
I really meant to so bad this time
'Cause you can never really tell
Wants something or wants to stay
- Secret Identity Identity: The threat of the heartless, Fascistic Duke, who was partly inspired and "aided" by Bowie's substance abuse problems, consuming him was the primary reason he stopped creating and assuming such stage personae.
- Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: The album was recorded when Bowie was going through a severe cocaine addiction.note Many of the metaphors and lyrical techniques in the Title Track also allude to the effects of acute and chronic cocaine use.
- The album cover is a still from The Man Who Fell to Earth from the scene where his character Thomas Jerome Newton steps into the space capsule that will return him to his home planet. The album cover of Bowie's next album Low would also be based on a still from that movie.
- The title track references Aleister Crowley's book "White Stains". The words "From Kether to Malkuth" refer to mystical locations in the Kabbalah.
- Sincerity Mode: Bowie later indicated that "Word on a Wing" was the only song whose lyrics he truly meant sincerely.
- The Sociopath: The Duke has no capacity for emotional arousal, and spends the album attempting to comprehend love and other stimulating emotions through cognitively (and sometimes physically) twisted means that are blatantly cold and calculated.
- Television Portal: "TVC15" has the protagonist's girlfriend crawl into a TV set and never come back: by the end of the song he's wondering whether to follow her or not. Yes, this is from his "cocaine madness" era, but in this case it was Iggy Pop's .
- Title Track: "Station to Station", which by logical extension also features an Album Title Drop:You drive like a demon from station to station.
- Train Song: "Station to Station". It even starts with train sounds.
- Uncommon Time: The title track is almost entirely in 10/4 for its first half (though it could also be counted as five-measure patterns of 4/4). There are some more time signature changes before it settles on 4/4 for the ending. Despite its rhythmic complexity, its groove never lets up; if it doesn't at least get your head moving, you're either lying or simply don't have a sense of rhythm. Along similar lines, "Stay" cuts out a beat in the last measure of each verse, but this doesn't ruin the song's groove at all.
- Villainous Cheekbones: His angular cheeks served him well as The Thin White Duke (which came at a time when he was downright bony, weighing as little as 90 lbs, which at a height of 5'10" is frighteningly frail).
- Wall of Text: The album credits are styled to run into each other without spaces.
- Waistcoat of Style: The Thin White Duke's black one was vital to the character's look; as himself, Bowie would wear one for the Sound+Vision tour as well.
- What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: An overarching theme of the album, courtesy of the downright sociopathic Duke.