The legendary David Bowie is back after a break of a decade. Ed Power looks back at his brilliant and baffling career — and gives his verdict on Bowie’s new album
DAVID Bowie has always been good at surprises. In the 1970s, each new album seemed to bring a new Bowie. He was a glam alien one moment, a bequiffed soul-boy and channeller of Teutonic angst the next. Scarcely had his fanbase caught up with his latest direction than he was off again, literally and figuratively, trying new clothes on for size. In an industry where being true to yourself is regarded as the ultimate virtue, Bowie turned unpredictability into a performance art.
He’s at it again with his first album since 2003, The Next Day. News of the record truly did appear to drop from the clear blue sky. The first anyone outside a very tight circle of associates knew of the project was at 5am on January 8, when Sony Music sent out digital copies of the lead single ‘Where Are We Now?’ It was a slow, brooding song, a dirge really — a strange taster for an album which, we would subsequently learn, harked back to the busy guitar rock Bowie dipped in and out of in his pomp.
A better sense of where Bowie was at creatively is provided by the second single ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’. Reminiscent of both his late ’90s period and also his overlooked 1979 album Lodger, the single is a brisk rocker, grounded in the singer’s trademark indecipherable lyrics and one of those mid-song tempo changes that became his signature circa 1974’s Diamond Dogs.
Most intriguing of all is the sleeve of the album itself, which depicts the cover of his Heroes album with a white space blanking Bowie’s face. Is he referencing the past? Or perhaps seeking to deconstruct his own mythology? Is he a contemporary of Dylan and The Beatles? A forerunner of the escapist pop of the 1980s? Or, as his most die-hard fans will tell you, a songwriting alien without peer or precedent? It is a good time to be asking these questions as a lavish retrospective of Bowie’s work opens on March 23 at London’s Victoria and Albert museum.
To properly understand Bowie’s music you have to go back to his upbringing. He was raised in the drabbest of suburbs, the Kent commuter town of Bromley, close to London. “It was just so bloody boring,” he said. “I wanted to do anything I could to get away.”
He studied music at college and found work in advertising in London. Louche, artsy, fast-moving — this was exactly the place Bowie was meant to be, though initially he found it difficult to get his music career off the ground. When he finally got around to putting out a record, 1969’s David Bowie, it was obvious he had inhaled the fumes of the psychedelic scene. On trippy, hazed-out ballads such as ‘Janine’, ‘Memory of A Free Festival’ and ‘Space Oddity’, a novelty hit forgotten within weeks, he came on like the archetypal flower child, a sensibility mirrored by his long hair and growing penchant for performing in flowing gowns.
The first of many changes in sound and vision arrived with 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World. The cover shot of Bowie in a dress emphasised his deepening interest in androgyny but the music veered emphatically towards hard-rock.
What is regarded as Bowie’s ‘golden period’ started the following year with Hunky Dory. Containing several of his best songs — ‘Changes’, ‘Life On Mars’, ‘Bewlay Brothers’ — the LP saw Bowie casting aside outside influences and forging a record of ferocious originality.
Scarcely had his fast expanding fanbase paused for breath than he was switching costumes again. Regarded as being among his defining albums, 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars was both the high-watermark of the glam era and one of Bowie’s most straight-up rollicking excursions. The secret to Ziggy Stardust’s appeal is that it was as much about image as songs — in his bright pixie boots and strange make-up, his hobgoblin quiff reaching almost to the ceiling, Bowie wasn’t so much a cross-dressing rock star as a visitor from another planet, or even dimension.
The record made Bowie a star. His profile would soar higher yet in 1974 with companion collection Aladdin Sane. And yet, he was unhappy with the way his stage persona was coming increasingly to be conflated with his own. So, without warning, he killed off Ziggy Stardust and, on the Diamond Dogs and Young Americans albums, tinkered with his identity. The former was a proto-punk concept LP inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, the latter a soul project inspired by the black music Bowie was hearing on his tours of America.
By now, fame was extracting a heavy price. In film footage from the time, Bowie seems pale and shrivelled, a bag of bones topped off with lurid orange hair. He later recollected that, by the mid-70s, he was mostly living off “cocaine and milk”.
Strung out and creatively exhausted, he fled California in 1976, shacking up with Iggy Pop in a modest apartment in Berlin. There, working with his regular producer Tony Visconti (and occasional contributions from Brian Eno) at Hansa Tonstudio, he would write the aforementioned Berlin records, Low, Heroes and Lodger.
Casting around for new challenges, he took time off from music to appear in a Broadway version of the Elephant Man, a turn that was well reviewed and suggested his future might be on stage and screen rather than in the recording booth.
However, there was an opportunity for one more classic LP, 1980’s Scary Monsters, which spawned the number one single ‘Ashes to Ashes’. Twelve months later, he collaborated with Queen on ‘Under Pressure’. And then, as if a switch was flicked, the lights went off on his golden years.
Freed from a punitive management contract, with 1983’s Let’s Dance Bowie pleaded shamelessly for the love of the mass market. Produced by Chic’s Niles Rodgers, the title track was a decent chunk of funk-rock and Bowie did not embarrass himself on the single ‘China Girl’. Otherwise, the record had a great deal in common with Wham! and Phil Collins. From then, Bowie’s quality control declined precipitously, arguably reaching its nadir with his dreadful Tin Machine band project.
When Bowie’s music began to improve again in the ’90s, nobody was really paying attention. Reunited with Brian Eno, 1995’s Outside found Bowie channelling industrial acts such as Nine Inch Nails, whilst 1997’s Earthling drew on drum and bass and was not a disgrace. Two satisfactory rock outings, 2002’s Heathen and 2003’s Reality cemented his return. Then came the heart attack which forced him to postpone a headline slot at the 2004 Oxegen festival, marking the onset of a nine-year hiatus.
Next week, Bowie will finally be back. Incredibly, all the signs are that it will be with an album as accomplished as any he has produced during his brilliant, baffling career.
REVIEW: Bowie album pulses to thrill of its existence
David Bowie was never one for following the rules and, on his first album in a decade, he blazes a stunningly original trail once again.
Recorded in what amounted to top secret conditions in Manhattan, the existence of The Next Day was somehow kept under wraps until the January release of plaintive first single ‘Where Are We Now?’, one of most autobiographical songs Bowie has written.
If ‘Where Are We Now?’ suggested Bowie, 66, and completely recovered from the heart attack that struck him down in 2004, had reached a belated truce with old age, the second tune from The Next Day indicated precisely the opposite.
Strongly hinting that Bowie may have spent his hiatus absorbing The Strokes and Sonic Youth, ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ was tetchy and urgent, a nostril-flaring rocker that could have squeezed comfortably between ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘Queen Bitch’ on some fantasy greatest hits compilation.
Sitting down to listen to the rest of the album, there is excitement and also a degree of trepidation. Bowie’s previous two long players, Heathen and Reality, were preceded by cracking singles, but the actual records contained too much stodge to be considered truly worthy additions to the canon (the argument may here be made that Bowie’s outstanding post-Scary Monsters project was barking concept folly Outside).
This time, though, he achieves precisely the correct mix. The Next Day is a record that pulses with the thrill of its own existence. Bowie, it is obvious, is ecstatic to be back and his enthusiasm electrifies every note.
He is also, thankfully, no longer trying to deny his rich past. Strewn through the 14 songs are overt references to some of his most iconic moments. Kicking off the album the title track is a snarling re-working of 1980’s ‘Fashion’.
Bowie, the alien-obsessed weirdo, meanwhile, surfaces on ‘Dancing Out in Space’.
The propulsive ‘(You Will) Set The World On Fire’ is Dame David rewriting Ziggy Stardust’s ‘Suffragette City’ in the style of a New York garage band (it is one of several numbers where Dublin guitarist Gerry Leonard figures prominently). ‘Valentines Day’ begins with a riff straight from ‘All The Young Dudes’.
But Bowie isn’t marooned in the 70s. ‘Love Is Lost’ is a frowning younger sibling of his 90s industrial goth epics ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ and ‘Hallo Space Boy’; on ‘If You Can See Me’ jittery bass fugues find common cause with 1997’s dance influenced ‘Earthling’. Still, the final note is reflective, closer ‘Heat’ tipping its hat towards the chilly Mitteleuropa angst of ‘Low’.
The over-arching tone is brittle urgency. Guitars are generally loud and dirty, the rhythm section insistent. Bowie’s vocals are the sound of a man who, now of pensionable age, is in the mood to get things done. He doesn’t want to waste his time or yours — the result is a record that stands amongst his very finest.
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