Tuesday, March 12, 2013

David Bowie: The Next Day

When I was 16 years old, I went to a record show* and ran into a guy who worked at the same grocery store as me. (*Hey, kids: long, long ago, in 1990, we didn't have download sites or, well, the internet, so we went to these old-fangled things called record shows where you could find bootlegs of concerts, memorabilia, and anything you wanted on your favourite musical acts. It was like ComicCon for music nerds.) We began talking, surprised to see each other there, and he discovered I was there hunting for obscure U2 bootlegs from the early '80s, while I found out he was looking for shows by The Smiths and David Bowie.

David Bowie? To me, he was that guy in the blue suit and yellow hair who'd done "Let's Dance" and "Modern Love." But this guy introduced me to the wonder that is Bowie, and I realized Bowie is unlike anyone else in music. He's a chameleon, always changing yet never playing by the rules, on the cusp of what's cool while always sticking around the edges of it himself. I fell in love... with Bowie, and this guy. So, I listened to everything Bowie did, and married the guy from the record show.

For that reason and many others, Bowie is very important to me. I saw him four times on the Reality tour when I was pregnant with my first child. Days after the first concert, I discovered I was pregnant. I felt her move during "Heroes" at the second show. She rocked out during "Heroes" at the third show. And on the fourth, a day I'll never forget, I drove to Buffalo racked with worry because I hadn't felt her move all day. I suffered through the car ride, dinner, and the first part of the show... and then Bowie broke into "Heroes"— and she walloped me with one hard kick. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life. As we drove home from the hospital with a day-old baby in the car, we listened to "Heroes" on the stereo, and we felt like a king and queen.

In January, almost exactly 23 years to the day when we started dating, we were vacationing in Orlando when my husband appeared in the bedroom doorway one morning, breathless, exclaiming that "Oh my god Bowie has a new single and a new album I cannot believe this" and I leapt out of bed, and we listened to him together. It was as if Lennon had risen from the dead and played for us.

Today is the day the album comes out, and we've already been listening to it for a week since it started streaming on iTunes. With a simple, almost mocking cover that looks like it was created in iPaint — with "Heroes" album cover being whitewashed over by a white box and the title of the album crossed out — you know from the outset this is Bowie returning to his roots, yet dashing them at the same time. Once again, The Thin White Duke has reinvented himself.

And today, I welcome my husband to the blog to offer a guest review of Bowie's new album. Please welcome Robert Thompson!

Author’s note: For much of the past decade I’ve written about sports, business, and yes, music. For what it is worth — and I won’t say all that much since I caught the magazine on its decline — I was also a contributing editor to the music magazine Billboard. Which just means, like a lot of people, I’m a Bowie fan, with a sterling promo vinyl copy of his first album on display in my music room, amid the bootlegs and books that celebrate his unparalleled career. That makes me a fan boy — I recognize that. I’m also Nikki Stafford’s husband and she has kindly granted me some space to write about his new album, which hits stores today, but has been streaming on iTunes for a week.

I, like many, thought Bowie was gone.  I saw him four times on the Reality tour around the time my daughter was born. After his heart attack, I assumed he would solider on. But when he didn’t — or when I read author Marc Spitz write that he assumed Bowie had retired to look after his daughter — I found some degree of relief. Unlike the ever greying Who and Stones, Bowie would go out in fine form. Reality was a solid outing — no it wasn’t Scary Monsters, but no one expected it to be. And the live shows were staggeringly good. It was a fine encore to a career that was derailed for a decade starting at Tonight. His reputation wouldn’t be tarnished in the way it might have been had he ended on say, Tin Machine.

With that in mind, I must admit I felt like an excited teen when, while on holiday with my wife and kids in St. Petersburg, of all places, I checked my computer one morning in early January to find Bowie had released a new song. A one-off surely? After all, he’d been gone so long. It was a mixture of trepidation and fascination that I immediately bought the song, “Where Are We Now?” on iTunes. What I received was a thoughtful ballad with a powerful ending, the sort of song that sneaks up on you, sticking in your head. Part “Wild Is the Wind,” the piano-driven track would have stood out on either of Bowie’s last two albums. It wasn’t a single — what is a single in the era following the passing of MTV and commercial radio? — but it was a plaintive ballad full of allusions to the period of Bowie’s Berlin recovery following the cocaine-addled Stationtostation tour.

“Where Are We Now?” with its “as long as there’s sun,” crescendo of drums on the outro was a hopeful start. It was enough for me to wishfully think that this would be the one. Lacking any commercial consideration, any expectation of any sort, maybe this would be the album where Bowie would have a complete creative rebound. It could be his surprising masterpiece no one saw coming.

Not surprisingly, The Next Day isn’t that. No one could really expect Bowie, now 66, to reach the extended peak he found 1970s’ The Man Who Sold the World and Scary Monsters. By my count he carded a dozen records in that decade, all remarkably good. In turn he set an impossible standard against which he can’t really succeed. There’s an argument to be made that no artist in the history of rock music has had such a sustained run of consistently great albums.

Considering that, it is fascinating to find the new album is solid, even spectacular in places. And though there’s nothing retro about the sound, there are plenty of allusions to the glory days when Bowie could do no wrong and really was without peer. From the top, “The Next Day,” with its angular slashing guitar and aggressive, reverb-heavy vocal, would fit nicely on “Heroes.” The same could be said for “How Does the Grass Grow,” with its vocal line that wouldn’t be out of place on the second side of Scary Monsters or the slightly off-kilter harmonies of the glammy stomp “(You will) Set the World on Fire,” which could find a spot early on Lodger. Yep, at least for some of the tracks on The Next Day, Bowie reaches an artistic level that many wouldn’t have considered possible for a man many dismissed as artistically irrelevant for the past 30 years. 

If there’s a criticism, it might be that the music on the album is too straightforward, with producer Tony Visconti taking a hands-off approach to experimentalism. In that context there’s been a lot made in early discussion of “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” one of two delicate and fascinating songs that end the album, and rightfully so. On “You Feel So Lonely…” Bowie effortlessly scales heights unseen since the brilliance of Ziggy. He’s tried this before — remember “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” off the largely horrible Black Tie White Noise? For some reason that attempt didn’t resonate the way the new track does — and for those that might miss the subtle link to Bowie’s glam period, he exits the song with the intro to Ziggy’s “Five Years.”

Which leaves us with “Heat,” the song the pundits suggest is the Second Coming of Scott Walker. Bowie has mined this territory before — see almost all of the underrated Outside and yes, its vocal apes some of Walker’s eccentric tendencies. But there’s nothing as elaborately weird on “Heat” that can be compared to the whimsical strangeness that abounds on Walker’s Bish Bosch. In other words, there’s no percussionist smacking a side of beef. Instead we’re given slight discordant strings and a brave vocal performance that emulates the most accessible elements of Walker’s unusual approach.

The brilliance in The Next Day is that Bowie seems to be once again writing songs with little consideration to fashion or stylistic currency. There’s no jungle here, like Earthling, or newfound folksiness, like Hours. But at the same time many of the new songs have the same flair, the same spark that made that earlier material — now more than three decades old — seem fresh when released and timeless now.

The problem with being a legend is you’re always judged by what made you legendary. Bowie’s standard at his creative height was so high as to be all but unreachable. His later material, much of which is very good, is always overshadowed by the brilliance of his seventies songs. He can’t be expected to remake Scary Monsters in the same way the Stones can’t remake Exile on Main St. I’ve read some of the gushing reviews for The Next Day and wonder if it is a case similar to John Lennon’s return on Double Fantasy. Critics want it to be great, and are hoping against hope that when a legend returns they’ll not do damage to their status. In those cases many pundits tend to go overboard — lauding an album in a way it doesn’t warrant.

I don’t think that’s the case here. What’s makes The Next Day so compelling is that there are instances where Bowie shows he can muster up the nerve and the artistic arrogance to do what he does best. That’s enough — and more than I expected.


Batcabbage said...

Wow. Welcome, Robert. I can't believe this is the first time you've written something here. I knew you were real! :)

Great review, you've got me excited for a new Bowie album (for me, it all begins and ends with Ziggy, but there you go).

Also, Nik, great story about your firstborn responding to Heroes! Although, it would suck if she was still like that, just hearing Heroes and then spontaeneously kicking you in the stomach. Kids, eh?

Anonymous said...

Thank you Rob. I would only add a little more about Bowie's awareness of the very issues you raise. "Where are We Now?" to me addresses directly the idea of the legend returning. You reference "Double Fantasy" which if not my favourite John Lennon by far but there is something so of the moment answering the question "Where are We Now" that I understand why some raved about it. Unfortunately, the tragedy makes it representative of something more than an ephemeral "now".

Bowie's return is not simply an attempt to capture a particular now as Lennon's was. The song "If You Can See Me" seem to me to invoke multiple personae of Bowie's yet never let one clearly enter the conversation. To me, the album repudiates the stereotype that so many fall into as they reach a stage of maturity; that is the desire to "be here now"; to be "of the moment." Lennon sought to do that; David Byrne seems to want that every time he reinvents himself; artists seeking to escape their past talk about it all the time in interviews. But there always seems to be a vague rejection of the past when they imply they have reached a new and seemingly wiser place. David Bowie the private (very private) citizen may well have done that, but David Bowie the artist is incapable of such lying to himself. I hear these new songs as part of a conversation with rather than a repudiation of what came before.

I think your review points to this well. To me, in addition to some very good songs, the genius of this album is that it is going to inform how I respond to things for which I thought I had already had a clear response. 5 years from now (and I hope that is not all I've got), I will almost certainly be more inclined to listen to HUNKY DORY over "The Next Day" but somehow I think how I hear Hunky Dory will be informed by "The Next Day" in ways that "Double Fantasy" simply does not really effect my listening to "Mind Games."

Bowie the artist in giving us "The Next Day" to me is overcoming the comeback cliche of "here is the me of today" and instead keeping us seeing that the present is never severed from the past and there is always renewed newness on the next day.