Black Tie, White Noise: A Guide To David Bowie, Part Two

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The Story So Far:

Having begun his career bumming around the early London rock ‘n’ roll scene and putting out a regrettable album of Edwardian dancehall cheese, David Bowie came into the public consciousness as a folk singer of sorts and rapidly mutated into the Big Thing of the early 1970s:  the glam rocker.  Having developed a ridiculous cocaine habit and, seeing the writing on the wall for glam as a musical form, Bowie fled artistically to America where he absorbed black American music and reinvented himself as the funkiest near-albino to ever grace the world.  While this brought him success, it was his move to Berlin and his reinvention into proto-ambient music and Krautrock that brought him to the high point of his artistic career.  Now one of the biggest stars in the rock world, Bowie skewed hard towards the world of more general pop and decided to take on the musical world…

 

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Let’s Dance

Released April 14th, 1983 on EMI Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #4 US

Singles:

Let’s Dance” (#1 UK, #1 US)

China Girl” (#2 UK, #10 US)

Modern Love” (#2 UK, #14 US)

Without You” (#73 US)

When the time came to record tracks for David Bowie’s 15th studio album, longtime producer Tony Visconti (who had produced every Bowie album since Low) set time aside in his calendar for the production, assuming he’d be on call again.  When he called Bowie’s people, however, he received a rude awakening:  Bowie was already in the studio with someone else, and Visconti’s services would not be necessary.  Visconti, incensed, would refuse to work with Bowie again for the rest of the 20th Century.

That “someone else” turned out to be Nile Rodgers, former Sesame Street touring guitarist and, more notably, the driving force behind Chic, one of the most successful bands of the disco era.  The reason Rodgers had been tapped to produce dates back to the outcome of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).  With the delivery of that album, Bowie’s contract with RCA Records was fulfilled and he was a free agent.  After negotiations, he was eventually signed by EMI Records for a then-staggering $17.5 million.  This was a cause for major celebration, of course, until the inevitable thought process occurred:  He would have to deliver music capable of paying back at least the amount EMI had spent on him, which meant that he needed guaranteed hits.  Nile Rodgers, with Chic, had been responsible for some of the biggest singles of the late 1970s, and so he was tapped to come in and work his magic.

Bowie left the instruments alone, relegating himself to the role of being merely the singer on the album.  He brought songwriting demos to the studio and Rodgers rearranged them to his own particular vision (which was typically not how Bowie had originally envisioned them).  Much of the guitar work was handled by then-relatively unknown Texas bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was approached after Bowie caught his mind-bending performance at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival.  Vaughan’s presence on the album makes for an oddly schizophrenic album, partly a dance-pop album of floor-fillers, and partly a cutting album of slippery blues guitar.  It was, for 1983, a weird sort of combination (unless you were ZZ Top, of course) but it worked exceedingly well.  The album sold scads, which did several things.  First, it launched the mainstream part of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s career; second, it got Nile Rodgers a great deal more production gigs; and third, it locked Bowie into a certain sound that he would maintain for the bulk of the Eighties, with diminishing returns.

Let’s Dance, taken on its own, is the bulls-eye of Bowie’s mercenary pop style.  The first half is wall-to-wall brilliance:  “Modern Love” has the sort of swing that pervaded Lodger, amped up and driven through the stratosphere; “China Girl” is slinky and exotic, with Bowie’s admonishment to “just you shut your mouth” being oddly exciting; “Let’s Dance” has found a home on every great alternative club-night playlist; “Without You” bounces along with an odd gait all it’s own.  The back half loses steam but remains deeply competent, bopping along with some of the best blues-dance tracks ever conceived.  It’s hard to consider it a Bowie album, per se, since a lot of the sound and strength of the album comes from other people, but vocally it’s not as though it weakens the man’s legend at all.  Far from it, in fact; his alien voice was at odds with what was considered commercially viable in the greater mainstream at the time, and it opened up the possibility of the weird becoming saleable.

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Tonight

Released September 1st, 1984 on EMI Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #11 US

Singles:

Blue Jean” (#6 UK, #8 US)

Tonight” (#53 UK, #53 US)

Loving The Alien” (#19 UK)

Immediately following the wrap of the tour behind Let’s Dance, Bowie hit the studio and began the recording process for the next album, hoping to maintain his new mainstream audience and keep himself relevant in the pop world.  Tonight, as the album came to be called, was the second album in a row where Bowie played no instruments.  Eight of the nine songs were again brought into the studio as demos and mutated into the songs as they are presented in final form.  Hugh Padgham (who would produce Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, The Human League, and Sting) was brought into produce, although Iggy Pop would end up helping extensively in the studio as well.

Tonight is an album that has received some very scattered reviews over the years.  It’s not anywhere near as bad as contemporary critics would have you believe, and it’s an album that brings to mind some lines critics have used about him in the past.  Robert Christgau once called him “a habitue of prematurely abandoned modernist spaces” and “post-middlebrow”.  Reviews of Let’s Dance referred to it in places as being “post-disco”.  All of these are true of Tonight, only with regards to the sounds that Padgham used on it, it can be said that it was Bowie that prematurely abandoned them; the gated-reverb effect on the drums would go on to be a staple of AOR hits, especially by Phil Collins (whose “In The Air Tonight” would use it as the primary musical delivery system).  It’s post-disco nature is more easily discernible from a contemporary standpoint; the drums and bass remain in the pocket, while the arrangements go beyond the nightclub shuffle and cobble together a sort of ramshackle reggae tone.  “Don’t Look Down” is the best example of this tendency towards reggae, but its jagged rhythms show up to a greater or lesser extent on many of the tracks here.

The key difference between Let’s Dance and Tonight is the return of Carlos Alomar to playing guitar; the lack of Stevie Ray Vaughan means that the strangely appealing dance-blues combination of the former is missing in the latter.  Tonight papers over the top-notch guitar work with plastic pop synthesizer work and dollops of soul; while it works, on the whole, it doesn’t work anywhere near as well as Let’s Dance did.  In the end it comes across a fairly standard pop album for the mid-Eighties, albeit one where Bowie brings his own personality in to bring it up above the cut.

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Never Let Me Down

Released April 27th, 1987 on EMI Records

Peaked at #6 UK, #34 US

Singles:

Day-In Day-Out” (#17 UK, #21 US)

Time Will Crawl” (#33 UK)

Never Let Me Down” (#34 UK, #27 US)

After the middling commercial response and abysmal critical response to Tonight, Bowie returned the studio two years later to “return to the basics of rock ‘n’ roll” – small band, tight arrangements, and a more Scary Monsters set of experimentation.  He returned to playing instruments, laying down keyboards, rhythm guitar, and lead guitar as well as singing on everything.  He went in with songs that he felt strongly about, and a heady sense of experimentation that he’d really been lacking for seven years.

The result was incoherent and lackluster.  The songs did not come out the way they had been originally conceived in Bowie’s head.  By his own admission they were good songs that he “abused” in the studio.  Never Let Me Down tries to fire in every direction at once and misses the mark most of the time, allowing what are admittedly really good songs drown in indifferent production.  By 1993 Bowie admitted that this particular problem with Never Let Me Down was his fault; he’d tuned out of the recording process early on and left the production up to his assembled band, lending the affair a “session player” sort of vibe.  Thus, everything feels far more overproduced than is necessary.  The social justice cry of “Day In Day Out” and the topical intensity of “Time Will Crawl” are lost in the scars of dated Eighties instrumentation.  The epic nature of “Glass Spider” is muted due to the overdone drums, the sugary synths, and the ill-timed and oddly brief guitar solo.  A lot of the time, while listening to these songs, you can’t help but wonder what they’d sound like if the Bowie of Low or even Scary Monsters had recorded them.  The easiest way you can tell that Never Let Me Down is the nadir of his career, however, is that he let Mickey Rourke rap on it.

The (relatively) poor commercial showing of Never Let Me Down and the subsequent critical panning of the theatrical Glass Spider Tour nearly caused Bowie to give up on music for good.  By the end of 1987 he just wasn’t feeling it anymore.  It would take a return to loud, basic guitar rock dynamics (as he’d intended for Never Let Me Down) to bring him back into the artistic fold.

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Tin Machine

Released May 22nd, 1989 on EMI Records

Peaked at #3 UK, #28 US

Singles:

Under The God” (#51 UK, #4 US Alternative)

Heaven’s In Here” (#12 US Alternative)

Tin Machine” (#48 UK)

Prisoner Of Love

Following the Glass Spider tour (a critical bust), Bowie was at the low point of his career.  Lower than the first David Bowie, even.  Trying to find his way to his own vision again, he fell in with guitarist Reeves Gabrels after hearing a tape of Gabrels’ playing.  At a wrap party for the Glass Spider tour, Bowie ran into Tony Sales, whom he had played with in the 1970s, along with Tony’s brother Hunt and Iggy Pop.  Tony and Hunt – the sons of comedy legend Soupy Sales – were roped into a new musical project along with Reeves Gabrels, the intent being to help all of them (but especially Bowie) find a new way forward in music.

From the beginning the band was a band – democratic input, everyone writing songs, no one letting David Bowie overshadow the proceedings.  Tin Machine, the first album from the new band, is unlike anything Bowie had done before.  There are elements of the past on it – inspirations from the likes of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton’s work with Cream, and Jimi Hendrix – but there is also more than a whiff of the present of 1989 in the sense that college rock (especially the legendary Pixies) were a big inspiration on the music.  The low-key, desert-night guitar notes in the chorus of “Prisoner Of Love” are a great example of a line that seems lifted wholesale from the brain of Joey Santiago.  The raw stomp of “Crack City” was inspired by the band’s recording sessions in Nassau, a city which was apparently awash in poverty and crack.

The real problem with Tin Machine is that it tries too hard to present a vision of “back-to-basics hard rock and roll”.  Part of this is the fact that it was made in 1989 and as such it suffers primarily from the overproduction of the time.  The guitars take up too much space in the mix, there’s too much time given to Bowie’s voice when it’s unnecessary, and the drums have that peculiar contemporary sound where they sound very loud and very flat at the same time.  The guitar solos that pop up are blues-riffs-by-number, like Gabrels decided to sketch out a regurgitated idea of what Stevie Ray Vaughan had been doing.  All of these problems come to a head on the ill-advised cover of “Working Class Hero”, which drags down the rest of the album sharply.  Still, “Bus Stop” and “Video Crimes” bring life back, saving the album from being a regrettable artifact of an earlier age.  Tin Machine is pretty hit-and-miss, but the important thing is that the band sounds like it’s having a lot of fun, and it put Bowie back on the right path as his career entered the 1990s.

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Tin Machine II

Released September 2nd, 1991 on Victory Music

Peaked at #23 UK, #126 US

Singles:

You Belong In Rock ‘n’ Roll” (#33 UK)

Baby Universal” (#21 US Modern Rock)

One Shot” (#3 US Modern Rock)

Immediately better than Tin MachineTin Machine II dials back on the blare and the clatter and focuses on the good parts of the Bowie-Sales-Gabrels combination.  Take “Baby Universal” as the indicator for the entire album:  those quick-wrist drum fills would have been overbearing in 1989; by 1991, they had been set back into the mix so that their impact is felt rather than avoided.  Gabrels had spent the time between albums getting into Nine Inch Nails’ debut Pretty Hate Machine, and the influence is felt in subtle ways throughout.  There is less rote-blues riffing going on, and more creativity with how the guitar is presented as an instrument.  While the album outdid its predecessor in an artistic sense, it was in a more important sense a commercial failure, barely cracking the US charts (although “One Shot” was a minor hit on modern rock radio).  Tin Machine II would be the last album by the band after contemporary critics unfairly savaged the album and the public reaction never rose above tepid.  Still, the band did it’s job; two years later Bowie would resume his solo career in much better form than when he’d put it on hiatus.

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Black Tie White Noise

Released April 5th, 1993 on Savage Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #39 US

Singles:

Jump They Say” (#9 UK)

Black Tie White Noise” (#36 UK)

Miracle Goodnight” (#40 UK)

David Bowie in 1987 was an artist who was spent.  Having released three albums that were wired to what he perceived the mainstream wanted, his artistic vision had taken a backseat to sales with increasingly poor results.  David Bowie in 1993 was a completely different animal.  Having spent some time bashing out hard rock basics with Tin Machine, and “retiring” his old hits on the 1990 Sound And Vision Tour, he was a clean slate ready to get back to what it meant to be “David Bowie”.  Black Tie White Noise is the first entry in that neo-Bowie canon, and its beginnings go back to 1991, when Bowie ran into Nile Rodgers after a Tin Machine show in New York.  Rodgers would be brought in to produce, but explicitly not to rehash Let’s Dance.  The idea they hatched was to take the ideas of house and R&B and reinject the melodicism of the 1960s into them.

This idea is more or less translated into reality.  “The Wedding”, kicking off the album, gives a mutated take on the machine-like relentlessness of the house beat, filtered through a wah-soaked saxophone-fueled Seventies haze.  “Black Tie White Noise” appropriates the syncopated beat and some of the instrumentation of New Jack Swing.  “Jump They Say” and “Nite Flights” have the clatter of classic rave drums, with squelching synthesizers and more of that saxophone.  Saxophone was actually the instrument Bowie chose to concentrate on for the album; despite the fact that he is not a “saxophonist” per se, his take on the instrument is interesting and fits well into the arrangements.  The jazz-fever bursts he spits out on “Jump They Say” is evidence of this:  it works very well in the context of the song despite the fact that he is untrained.  The sax is used as colour and texture, more so than as a display of technical virtuosity.  Also of note is the presence on guitar of Mick Ronson, who had been the guitarist for the Spiders From Mars; it would be the last album he would appear on, as he would die of cancer 19 days after the release of the album.

Much of the album is coloured by the fact that he had just been married; he and his wife (Somali supermodel Iman) were shopping for houses in Los Angeles on the day of the Rodney King verdict.  The experience of the subsequent riots gave rise to the title track, an examination of the difficulty in healing the wounds of the racial divides of America (a divide Bowie himself had noted as far back as Aladdin Sane).  Also like Aladdin Sane is the spiritual presence of his stepbrother Terry, who had been hospitalized for schizophrenia in the 1980s and had recently committed suicide.  The “divided nature of the mind” that had been Bowie’s philosophical impetus for Aladdin Sane had been inspired by Terry, and on Black Tie White Noise the songs “Jump They Say” and the cover of Cream’s “I Feel Free” were inspired by him as well.  “Jump They Say” was semi-biographical; “I Feel Free” stems back to a Cream show that Bowie had taken Terry to where his stepbrother had suffered a freakout during the song.  The bookend tracks – “The Wedding” and “The Wedding Song” – as well as the sax-blasted English rave of “Pallas Athena” were written as part of the wedding music he’d penned for his marriage to Iman.  The latter became a club hit in America after an anonymous remix was released.

Black Tie White Noise was the first to get the tag of “His best since Scary Monsters!” although it would not be the last.  Oddly, however, Bowie chose to release the album on Savage Records, a startup label that went bankrupt almost immediately; consequently, the album would be quickly out of print despite its #1 peak in the UK, and would remain so until reissues in the late 1990s.

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The Buddha Of Suburbia

Released November 8th, 1993 on EMI Records

The Buddha Of Suburbia is a bit of a lost record in Bowie’s discography.  The problem is one of confusion.  In 1993 Bowie did the soundtrack to a four-episode BBC2 adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia.  After making the soundtrack, he decided to further explore the ideas he’d gotten into on the soundtrack on an album, which he decided he’d also call The Buddha Of Suburbia.  Despite the fact that the soundtrack and the album only share the title track in common, the album was categorized as a soundtrack and thus got no marketing or exposure.  Making matters even more confusing is the essentially soundtrack-like nature of the album.  There’s quite a few ambient moments that harken back to Bowie’s work with Brian Eno in the late 1970s.  Elsewhere there is a great deal of jazzy piano, electro-influenced drums, and strange, repetitive vocal filters (as on the excellent “Sex And The Church” or the rather dated “Bleed Like A Craze, Dad”).  “Strangers When We Meet” and “Dead Against It” are more pop-oriented tracks, the latter being an electronic-oriented dream pop song that would point the way towards where he would be heading for the rest of the decade.  Buddha isn’t an essential album by any means, but it is a neat bit of back catalog record-making, and it makes for a nice find when mining Bowie’s discography.

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Outside

Released September 26th, 1995 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #8 UK, #21 US

Singles:

The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” (#35 UK, #92 US)

Strangers When We Meet” (#39 UK)

Hallo Spaceboy” (#12 UK)

Outside marks the return of David Bowie to bizarre conceptual art-rock, as well as his return to working with Brian Eno.  Eno and Bowie reconnected at Bowie’s wedding when the two took turns playing their own music on the dancefloor.  After deciding to collaborate on an experimental album, they visited a mental institute in Austria and did some research on outsider art.  Using this as an inspiration, they dove into their own heads, utilized cut-up techniques a la what Bowie was doing in the late 1970s, and crafted a story about a dystopian 1999 where the latest fashionable craze in art was carefully arranged murder.  Nathan Adler, the protagonist of Outside, investigates the art-murder of 14 year old Baby Grace and delves into madness.

With the story as an anchor of sorts, it’s up to the music to keep things interesting, and in that Outside is sort of a mixed bag.  On one hand, Bowie melds his particular pop vision – something he’d been refining since the early 1980s – with the Berlin Trilogy ambient work and also with flourishes of electronic and industrial influences.  It’s no wonder that Trent Reznor remixed “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”, as it seems tailor-made for him to do so.  The same could be said of the corrosive “Hallo Spaceboy”, but Pet Shop Boys beat him to it and remade it into a driven house epic.  The direction Bowie was heading in on Outside was one that seemed like a perfect fit for him; his odd nature, alien voice, and art-damaged sensibility made him a natural candidate for the acidic nature of industrial rock and the darker aspects of electronic dance music.  On the other hand, Outside is, at 75 minutes, far too long to be effective.  Bowie knew it at the time, stating after its release that he really should have made it two albums.  The segues and story-driving interludes become a slog after a while, and tracks like “The Motel” seem to be dragged out for too long in the ambient portions before the harder-hitting bits kick in.  So while it works as an interesting concept, and it contains a number of great songs that point to Bowie’s continuing comeback into critical good graces, it’s too long to be considered a truly great album.

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Earthling

Released February 3rd, 1997 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #6 UK, #39 US

Singles:

Telling Lies

Little Wonder” (#14 UK)

Dead Man Walking” (#32 UK)

Seven Years In Tibet

I’m Afraid Of Americans” (#66 US)

After Outside, Bowie had plans to make an album per year until the year 2000, talking about the unprecedented opportunity to document the end of the millennium.  Despite his initial enthusiasm for the idea, nothing of the sort ever emerged; the reality of having to carry the storyline of Outside for another five years perhaps relegated this idea to the bin of “Good, But Impractical”.  Instead, following a 1995 tour with Nine Inch Nails, Bowie followed it up with Earthling, a galvanizing record that found him ditching the contrived concepts and embracing both the industrial noise-pop he’d been interested in and the jungle and drum n bass sounds that were permeating the English dance scene by the latter half of the Nineties.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Earthling is that Bowie produced it himself, his first such effort since Diamond Dogs.  Unlike Diamond DogsEarthling is really quite good.  Bowie gets the textural possibilities behind clattering breakbeats in the same way that Black Tie White Noise showed he got the idea behind the saxophone, if not the technical virtuosity.  His adherence to the styles he was mining went beyond mere sampling, as well; drummer Zac Alford worked out all of the loops heard on the record, and his drum tracks were then sped up to DnB speeds and chopped.  His obvious fascination with the musical forms that he plays with here also led him to pen some of the strongest melodies he’d had in years (tellingly, Rolling Stone would refer to the album as “his best since Scary Monsters).  Unlike the atmospheric drudgery of OutsideEarthling is full of songs that sound like David Bowie, in a way that he hadn’t in nearly two decades.  Every song hits hard and sticks like the first half of Let’s Dance, but unlike that album the second half doesn’t flag.  Instead, “I’m Afraid Of Americans” waits near the end of the album to trip up the unwary listener who thinks they’ve got the album figured out.

As a fifteen year old in 1997 with more than a passing interest in Nine Inch Nails and groups like the Prodigy, the Lost Highway soundtrack was something that was in my collection.  The entry point was, of course, Trent Reznor’s “The Perfect Drug”, but the highlight was this stomping industrial number called “I’m Afraid Of Americans” by a guy we’d really only been aware of as a presence on the classic rock channels our parents glued the radio to in the car.  It was my first impression of Bowie as an artist, rather than as the guy who sang “Suffragette City”.

Also of note on Earthlings is Bowie’s embrace of the art of the remix; the extended version collects all of the disparate remixes of the singles, among them Junior Vasquez, Moby, and Trent Reznor.  The single “Telling Lies” was originally released to be remixed before the album came out; it was made available on Bowie’s website, a move that made history.  “Telling Lies” was the first single by a major mainstream artist that was made available for download on the internet, and Bowie would continue this pioneering spirit into his next album.

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‘hours…’

Released September 21st, 1999 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #47 US

Singles:

Thursday’s Child” (#16 UK)

The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell

Survive

Seven

‘hours…’ is the exact opposite of Earthling.  It suffers from the same problems that a lot of contemporary albums had:  the soggy, saccharine strings, the rote drum-machine patterns that everyone used, the sub-Matchbox 20 guitar work (seriously, check out the beginning of “If I’m Dreaming My Life” and tell me you don’t think Rob Thomas is going to come busting out of it).  Bowie sounds tired on it, his voice lagging and stretching out unnecessarily over a series of samey, adult-contemporary arrangements.  While it’s not “embarrassing”, as Ryan Schreiber put it (Ryan Schreiber, for whom anything that’s not hip in Brooklyn is embarrassing), it is distressingly boring, something that Bowie has never really been throughout the course of his career.

There are some highlights, of course.  “Seven” is a good ballad in the vein of early pre-Spiders Bowie – it would likely have fit comfortably on Hunky Dory.  It also smartly avoids the contemporary Robbie Williams pop tropes that mar a great deal of the record.  “What’s Really Happening” features a melodic tease and a throwback to something like what might have been a solid track on The Man Who Sold The World.  “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” almost reclaims the energy and excitement of Earthling, but Bowie’s voice comes across as too obscured and the squealing guitar lines seem more of an anachronism, something more Tin Machine than David Bowie at the end of the 20th Century.

In the end ‘hours…’ is really only notable for being the first album by a major artist available for purchase and download online.  It was released digitally on the date noted above, two weeks before the physical CD was available.

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Heathen

Released June 11th, 2002 on ISO/Columbia Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #14 US

Singles:

Slow Burn

Everyone Says Hi” (#20 UK)

I’ve Been Waiting For You

David Bowie’s first foray into the 21st Century found him accepting the process of aging and focusing more on the degradation of the human race than on the degradation of himself.  If ‘hours…’ interminable Millenium-scarred slog was an examination of the exhaustion that Bowie felt by the end of the Nineties, Heathen finds him waking up in the evening, somewhat refreshed but feeling a little spacey despite it.  “Sunday” and “Slip Away” deal with the fear of aging; “Slow Burn” and “A Better Future” draw inspiration from the events of 9/11.  Heathen, at the time of its release, was talked up as “Bowie’s response to 9/11”, but this is inaccurate in that most of the album was recorded before September of 2001.  “Afraid”, “I Would Be Your Slave”, “5.15 The Angels Have Gone”, and “Everyone Says Hi” are more about trying to find the threads of the past in the muddle of the present than they are about dealing with the aftermath of a terrorist attack on America.  The three covers are rather interesting:  “Cactus”, a Pixies song about obsession, “I’ve Been Waiting For You”, a Neil Young song from his self-titled debut that Bowie recorded with Dave Grohl playing guitar; and “I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship”, originally by The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, an outsider-art musician that had been a direct influence on the Ziggy Stardust character.

Musically, Heathen marks the return of Tony Visconti to producing, which he hadn’t done for Bowie since Scary Monsters.  As such, the backing tracks are elegant, subtle, and well-constructed, allowing the focus to be on Bowie’s songs rather than on any particular musical style.  AllMusic, naturally, called it “his best since Scary Monsters“.  It doesn’t sound like any particular Bowie album but it contains fragments of his older music.  The problem here is that the originals start to sound similar after a while:  strings, subtle guitar, understated drum work, and Bowie lingering over each line like a regretful European chanteuse (which is almost assuredly what he was going for).  Individually that makes for a fine listening experience; taken as a total it gets to be a bit much.

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Reality

Released September 16th, 2003 on ISO/Columbia Records

Peaked at #3 UK, #29 US

Singles:

New Killer Star

Pablo Picasso

Never Get Old

Work on Reality began as production for Heathen was being wrapped up, as he was once again in one of those periods where the writing was coming fast and furious.  It’s also immediately more energetic than the lingering death-dream of Heathen; “New Killer Star” kicks off with a relentless, elastic guitar figure and a slinky nature that Bowie had been missing since the Eighties.  “Never Get Old” flips the script on the obsession with mortality that Bowie had been labouring under since the end of the Nineties; “Looking For Water” has a serious stomp to it; “Fall Dog Bombs The Moon” brings the calendar back to the late 1970s like something from Heroes.  To back up this newfound vigour, Bowie spins out themes of “post-philosophy”:  the recognition that the truths of the path are fading and that the new truths of the modern age have yet to be fully discovered and understood.  Politics is moving beyond rational grounding and knowledge is no longer the currency of the greater public discourse.  Reality manages to seem adventurous while being rooted deeply in Bowie’s past, and it makes the case that the Bowie/Visconti pairing was really the best of his many partnerships.

Predictably, the BBC referred to it as “his best since Scary Monsters“.

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The Next Day

Released March 8th, 2013 on ISO/Columbia Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #2 US

Singles:

Where Are We Now?” (#6 UK)

The Stars (Are Out Tonight)

The Next Day

Valentine’s Day

Love Is Lost

For ten years there was nothing, and in general it was thought that Bowie had quietly retired.  After all, he’d suffered a heart attack on stage during the Reality Tour and had been forced to cancel the remaining 14 dates.  Since then he’d spent his time recording vocals as backing for other people, performing short one-off dates, and keeping on the whole fairly quiet.  Some time around 2010, however, Bowie and Tony Visconti got back into the studio.  It was kept ultra-secret, to the point of requiring anyone coming into the studio to work with him to sign non-disclosure agreements.  During one recording session at NYC’s The Magic Shop in 2011, Emily Haines of Metric apparently showed up unannounced wanting to check out the studio and very nearly got in; she was turned away with no explanation.

Here’s the thing about The Next Day, though:  Bowie has always had a flair for the theatrical, but there haven’t been that many moments since 1980 that have warranted that theatricality.  Let’s Dance was a better album than it perhaps had a right to be, Earthling was a near-perfect amalgam of Bowie and the electronic underground, and Reality was really quite good, but it’s not until The Next Day that Bowie’s later career brings an album that matches the sort of quality that the end of the first half of his career gave us.  The Next Day feels like Bowie leapt from Heroes  straight to 2013, skipping the intervening years – musically, at any rate.  While it lacks the deeply unsettling edge that 1977 had, it feels as comfortable and familiar as that year does from the remote perspective of the first quarter of the 21st Century.  Even the album art seems to indicate this leap:  it’s the cover of Heroes, with “Heroes” crossed out and a big white square labeled “The Next Day” slapped over top.  If there’s a clearer sign that Bowie was looking to get back into the mindset of where he’d been in the late 1970s, I fail to understand what it could be.

It doesn’t always work, of course.  “Boss Of Me” feels too cutesy for words, despite it’s swirling arrangement; “Dancing Out In Space” tries for the same dramatic abandon that colours “Boys Keep Swinging” and largely fails.  Still, at least half of the album is excellent and the other half is strong; there are no truly bad moments on The Next Day unlike nearly every album since Let’s Dance. There is the ghost of the drag that mired parts of Heathen, but it’s dressed up in such stellar retro clothing that it’s more ghostly than insipid.  It’s the strongest record of Bowie’s late-career renaissance – combining the fervor of his old self with the more refined sensibilities of his new self.  The man may have turned 66 the day he announced the album, and he may have spent the fifteen years previous dreading growing old, but when it comes to The Next Day, age is nothing but a number and David Bowie is forever.

 

David Bowie’s 26th album, Blackstar, will be released January 8th, 2016 on ISO/RCA/Columbia

 

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