Ugh, what a week. David Bowie was a totally inspiring person and I’m gutted. I’m splitting this week’s reviews into two posts: the Bowie edition and the standard one. This is the larger of the two. I’d figured early on that this week was mostly going to be Bowie, but I’ve basically stuck to old favourites rather than seeking out any of the stuff I haven’t heard. I’m in no rush to get through it all, now that the number of David Bowie albums in the world is finite. It’s nice to still have some of the really acclaimed ones to look forward to.
So, here are this week’s 14 Bowie-related reviews, hopefully without too much goop, under one subhead:
A category of his own
David Bowie: Blackstar — Just before I started writing these weekly posts, I was listening to almost nothing but Bowie, and had been for the better part of three months. What’s more, I’d been listening to only about three or four of his albums, over and over. That’s how much there is in his best albums, which seems to account for a fairly large percentage of them. They bear limitless repetition. When I finished my first listen of Blackstar, I immediately put in on again. I’ve been living with it all week. It’s good that this was released before Bowie passed, if barely. In 2016, critical consensus comes together fast enough that we know this album was beloved before it became loaded with the sentimental baggage it now carries. Now, we can see that Blackstar was built to take on that baggage from the beginning. But, it’s good to know that it didn’t need the extra push. I’m glad that I didn’t personally get around to listening to it until after Bowie’s death, though. Many of these tracks — particularly “Lazarus” — pack an extra punch when you know that Bowie intended them as a farewell. Also, you can’t help but feel like it adds a couple more layers to the riddle. I wrote elsewhere this week about how “Station to Station” encourages paranoid readings: where even the most minute details seem like they could be deeply meaningful. There are only a few artists who can pull that: James Joyce, Bob Dylan, David Lynch. And David Bowie. And on the title track of Blackstar, he leaves us with another tangled web of symbols to unravel. I expect that a hundred million conspiracy theories are immediately forthcoming. Think of these lines: “Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a meter then stepped aside/Somebody else took his place and bravely cried:/I’m a blackstar.” Who’s he talking about? Who’s the blackstar? Regardless of the specifics, here is my working theory: David Bowie’s final opus stands as a coded warning to anybody in the future who would dare revere him above the artists of their own time. This is what I choose to believe, because there’s a certain amount evidence in the text pointing there, and because Bowie’s always had the future in mind: I’m thinking of “Changes,” “Oh, You Pretty Things” and “All The Young Dudes,” especially. I believe it because I’ve also got the recently departed Pierre Boulez on my mind, who famously articulated a similar view. And I believe it because it’s such a positive message that we need to hear so badly. But of course, all theories of this sort will remain working theories forever, because as Bowie sings on the last track of his final album — “I can’t give everything away.” Nobody ever died with more panache.
David Bowie: The Next Day — It’s good that Bowie had time to make Blackstar. This would have been a perfectly fine final album, but it would have been an accidental one. An artist like Bowie deserves an Abbey Road: a swansong by design. But also, you can’t imagine that Bowie would have been content with this being his final statement, because The Next Day captures Bowie in an uncharacteristic moment of nostalgia. The album cover looks backwards; the lyrics to “Where Are We Now?” look backwards; the style of the music is neoclassical rock ‘n’ roll. Ending his career with The Next Day would have been a tacit endorsement of an attitude that the young man who wrote “Changes” would never stand for. Far better to explore entirely new sonic territory and sing about brave young artists who will take your place when you die.
David Bowie: Stage — I feel like a lot of music geeks today don’t appreciate live albums enough. In the case of somebody like Bowie, they might seem a little bit beside the point. Isn’t it really mostly about the songs? Well no, actually. One of the things that’s best about Bowie is the incredible range of musical personalities that he hired as members of his various bands. And live albums are the best way to really hear a band’s collective sound. The Bowie band on this recording is a particular favourite of mine, featuring the mighty two-guitar tag team of Carlos Alomar and Adrian Belew. It’s worth the price of admission just to hear those two take on the opening of “Station to Station.” Some of the Spiders From Mars era stuff sounds a little thin without Mick Ronson, but it’s great to hear the Berlin Trilogy material played for an audience. Imagine starting a show with “Warszawa.” Don’t overlook Bowie’s live records.
Alex Pappademas & Chuck Klosterman: “The Nobituary: David Bowie” — This is a 15,000 word email correspondence between two of the cleverest culture writers around. It was intended to generate thoughtful obituary material when Grantland got a tip three years ago that Bowie was on death’s door. Obviously, he was not. But they ran this anyway, and it’s a fantastic read that ended up having more to do with the deaths of celebrities in general than Bowie specifically. Some of the specifics seem prescient in the wake of the actual event this was supposed to follow. At one point, Klosterman refers to “Where Are We Now” as “a song a bedridden Bowie might have recorded just before his secret death.” Um. I have to say though: there’s a thread running through this about how people grieve celebrities on social media as a matter of personal image management. And, I think they’re probably right to observe that this is a thing that happens. But it made me realize that one of my least favourite things about social media (and I have many least favourite things about social media) is that cynics are constantly calling bullshit on people’s genuine emotions. I’d much rather see the outpouring of appreciation that followed Bowie’s death as an actual reflection of how much he was loved than a collective act of branding by an image-conscious world.
David Bowie: Hunky Dory — Hunky Dory is the album to go with to demonstrate to somebody the concept of “David Bowie: preternaturally gifted songwriter.” It’s probably the Bowie album with the highest density of novel musical and lyrical ideas. You get a new appreciation for “Changes” when you try and figure out the chords. “Life On Mars?” is one of those songs that manages to live up to its acclaim, against all odds, like “A Day in the Life” or “Like a Rolling Stone.” I can’t think of any other work of art that captures that feeling when the world feels less excellent than it should and you crave escape. It’s a miracle that it doesn’t eclipse the entire album. But everything on this, from iconic anthems like “Queen Bitch” on down to album tracks like “Andy Warhol” and “Bewlay Brothers” is pretty much classic.
David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars — Never one of my favourites. Call it perversity; call it hipster contrarianism. It may be either or both. But the truth is, when I start listing the songs on the album that I do really like, I end up pretty much listing them all. There’s no resisting. Ziggy is an immortal force of nature.
David Bowie: Aladdin Sane — Some days, I like this better than Ziggy Stardust, even though the songs aren’t as good, on average. But it’s a far better-made recording, with better instrumental performances — and the introduction of Mike Garson on piano, who is totally wonderful. This is Bowie with the glam turned all the way up. “Lady Grinning Soul” is possibly his greatest vocal performance.
David Bowie: Diamond Dogs — I take it back. “Sweet Thing” is his greatest vocal performance. Diamond Dogs is perpetually underrated because it is fragmented and incohesive — it’s made of bits of three separate abandoned stage musicals. But the parts that make it up are among Bowie’s strongest work. There are no bad tracks on Diamond Dogs; it just sort of doesn’t work as an album. But that’s better than being cohesive and bland. I love this.
David Bowie: Young Americans — To me, this is the least essential Bowie album of the ‘70s. But that’s what you could call praising with faint damns. The important thing about this is that it was the most extreme about-face in Bowie’s career thus far. It’s one of those moments like George Washington not running for another term as president, or William Hartnell being replaced by Patrick Troughton as Doctor Who: these are moments where it becomes clear that the thing we’re dealing with might be infinitely sustainable by way of regular shake-ups. So, if Bowie’s plastic soul isn’t one of his most successful directions in its own right, it’s still essential because it paved the way for, in my opinion, Bowie’s best music in the next several years.
The Man Who Fell To Earth — This is the first feature in the Bowie movie night I wrote up elsewhere, this week. In practice, the Bowie movie night I went to ended up being a combination Bowie/Rickman tribute, because it really has been a hell of a week. This was the first time I’d seen this movie, which I kind of can’t believe. I mostly knew what to expect, having seen a couple of other Nicolas Roeg movies (Performance and Don’t Look Now, both incredible). But I didn’t really know what to expect from Bowie. I read in Roeg’s memoir that he cast Bowie after realizing that he was so totally isolated from the rest of humanity (and in the throes of cocaine addiction, Roeg declines to mention) that he could basically just tell him what to say and point a camera at him, and Bowie wouldn’t really even have to act. His character, Thomas Newton is an amoral alien. For all intents and purposes, so was Bowie in 1975. He is totally fascinating to watch in this, and carries the movie. I loved this and will probably watch it again fairly soon. I feel like seeing this is absolutely key to understanding where Bowie was at during this phase in his career. On which note…
David Bowie: Station to Station — These days, this is my favourite Bowie album. Having now seen The Man Who Fell To Earth, it’s amazing how much this could have been recorded by Thomas Newton — if Newton could sing. There is much of this that I like even better in various live renditions, but there are also moments on the record that are totally inimitable: the transition in “TVC15” from barrelhouse piano in the verse to an ad jingle in the chorus, the propulsion of Earl Slick’s solo on the outro of “Stay,” Bowie’s vocal in the chorus of “Word on a Wing.” Hunky Dory might have more inventive songwriting, but Station to Station is probably a more well-rounded picture of Bowie’s art. It’s full of riddles, mysteries, science-fiction pastiches, funk beats, incredible vocals, great performances from a killer band, and the side-effects of the cocaine (or possibly love). Everything you could want.
David Bowie: Live Nassau Coliseum ’76 — This is the bonus concert on the special edition of Station to Station. It’s an interesting companion to both that album and to Stage. It’s from Bowie’s deliriously coked-up period, but he’s totally on point here. So is the band. Stacey Heydon is a through-and-through blockhead rock ‘n’ roll guitar player (the opposite of Adrian Belew), and there are moments where you kind of want him to just go away and let Alomar play the riffs. But, it’s interesting to hear “Fame” and “Station to Station” approached as flat-out rock. This is to the era from Diamond Dogs through Station to Station as Stage is to the era from Station through “Heroes”.
David Bowie: Low — David Bowie was a whole bunch of my favourite musicians: a composer of interesting novelty songs, an idiosyncratic folk rock one-hit-wonder, a glam rock alien, a gaunt paranoid in a fabulous white suit, a clever jazz fusion dilettante… but the one I’ll miss most is this detoxing depressive on this album, trying as hard as he can to get his life back in order. To be fair, that guy been largely absent for a long time, because he did actually get it together in the end, and he disappeared into a happier life. He’s reared his head now and again, on parts of The Next Day, for instance. But Low will always be his high-water mark: his turning point. Low’s reputation as a dark, brooding masterpiece is only halfway founded; it is just as frequently hopeful and generous, in the face of truly dire circumstances. There aren’t many songs that can make me as instantly happy as “A New Career in a New Town.”
David Bowie: “Heroes” — The thing that really gets me about “Heroes” is those quotation marks. The title track famously tells the story of two lovers from opposite sides of the Berlin Wall having an affair and getting killed by guards as they try to meet up surreptitiously. These people aren’t heroes — they’re just going about the usual, sordid business of being human. But, due to the confluence of personal and political factors, they briefly become something larger than themselves. If these two can’t be heroes, they can at least be “heroes,” just for one day. Even Bowie’s punctuation was astonishing. We ought to all try to heed the warning implicit in “Blackstar” (see above), but Bowie doesn’t make it easy. This man was singular.
DAVID BOWIE, 1947-2016. Pick of the week.