Sunday, March 24, 2013

Bowie: Where Is He Now?

When I was 16 I discovered both David Bowie and Burning Spear. I remember writing to a friend that Spear made me feel grounded, at one with the earth, while Bowie made me feel above it all, a god's-eye view, where troubles and joys had the same value. Spear lives in Queens now, not the loamy hills of Jamaica, but when I saw him in concert a few years ago I still got that rich, natural feeling. And how am I feeling now that Bowie is back? Pretty damned tall.

The story of The Next Day has been told in detail by so many publications that I don't feel the need to go into it here. I will say that I come down on the side that Bowie's comeback was, and continues to be, one of the most remarkable public relations coups of recent years. From the "cone of silence" over the recording sessions themselves, to his own continued silence ("He's letting us do all the work," as bassist and vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey put it), Bowie has proved that he is still a master manipulator of media. Remember, this is the man who created Ziggy, a superstar persona that resulted in actual superstardom, after about a decade of trying.

When the song and video Where Are We Now? burst into the consciousness of the world on his 66th birthday, some commented that Bowie looked and sounded frail. But it was instantly clear to me that he was still the actor, with every blink and swallow carefully enacted. Using only his attenuated face, Bowie gave as precise a performance as his legendary run on Broadway in The Elephant Man. The song itself was gorgeous and witty, a wry and romantic look back at Bowie's Berlin days. Nostalgic, yes, but far from cliched. Admit it: you never heard the word Dschungle in a song before, certainly not sung so casually. Produced by Tony Visconti, the sound was lush yet spare, a small ensemble masterfully employed.

Andre Bazin, the French film theorist, created the idea of doubling, where what we know of a film actor's real life informs their performance of a character that is not them. In Where Are We Now? Bowie makes use of this "Bazinian doubling" to lend depth to our experience of the song. He knows what we know about his time in Berlin and allows us to fill in blanks - but that doesnt mean that it is Bowie himself who is singing the song. Bowie is not a confessional songwriter, after all. The "old Bowie" persona in Where Are We Now? may be one of his canniest creations yet, one which gives us access to the emotions of the song rather than distancing us from them. Then the album arrived, with its brilliant cocked snook of a cover, and it was clear that Bowie would not be wallowing in his past but simply standing on it to get to a new place in his art.

The title track kicks the album off with a dry thwack, snarling guitars matched by Bowie's swaggering sneer. While it has a similar swing to Repetition from Lodger, The Next Day is driving and confident with phantasmagoric lyrics based in Bowie's medieval studies. It's an etching of an execution repurposed by The Starn Twins. Cleverly sung from the POV of the slain ruler, the line (by now much-quoted) "Here am I/Not quite dying'" savagely puts paid to the rumors of Bowie's ill health in true Bazinian fashion.

Dirty Boys, ugly and ungainly like its subjects, comes next and solidifies the sense that Bowie is fully engaged as an artist and unafraid to challenge himself. The spacious sound gives room for the three-guitar knife-fight of Gerry Leonard, Earl Slick and Visconti to compete for dominance. Aided and abetted by Steve Elson's baritone sax, the herky jerky rhythm of Dirty Boys is the perfect lead-in to the sweeping onrush of The Stars (Are Out Tonight).

Instantly in the pantheon of Bowie's greatest songs, with a fascinating video to match, The Stars is a dark look at the relationship between the famous and their fans, but instead of the latter parasitically leaching off the former, the roles are reversed: "They burn you with their radiant smiles/Trap you with their beautiful eyes." Leave it to Bowie to find something original to say about our celebrity-obsessed culture, and to wrap it up in such a seductive package, with David Torn's processed guitar lending depth and atmosphere.

There have been some comments (complaints?) that Visconti is not doing enough as a producer on The Next Day. In some senses, he and Bowie employed an old-fashioned approach by having musicians play together in a studio, shuffling players in and out as each song demanded. It is also true that there is little of Brian Eno-style treatments and everything pretty much sounds like what it is. But listening to Love Is Lost and then checking the credits to see that its grandiose sound is the product of just four musicians, with minimal overdubbing (except for the layered vocals), is to realize that all is not as simple as it seems. One of Visconti's greatest achievements, after all, is the gleaming perfection T.Rex's The Slider, which is more the result of the organization of sound and the deployment of resources than any studio wizardry. The same is true of The Next Day.

Valentine's Day also features a small group sound with a complex vocal arrangement, and is one of Bowie's compassionate portraits of an outcast, this time a high school loser who imagines " he'd feel/If all the world were under his heel." Maybe all will be well if he meets the girl with the mousy hair from Life On Mars - but I doubt it. It's no accident that Valentine's Day is followed by the overwhelming power of If You Can See Me, with its prog rhythms and shattering vocals from Gail Ann Dorsey soaring overhead. This is Valentine become "the spirit of greed, a lord of theft," and at the head of an rampaging army, his divided self embodied by Bowie's processed singing. It's the kind of song you can imagine on Buffalo Bill's iPod and it sounds like nothing else in Bowie's catalog.

I'd Rather Be High is a Sixties-infused slice of anti-war greatness, with a chorus of Bowies providing the perfect backdrop for the swooping melodies. It's a fantastic song, informed by Apocalypse Now and Generation Kill, and one that John Lennon himself would likely welcome as the b-side of Rain. Like The Stars, it's a bitter pill with a creamy coating and the pure expression of a genius songwriter at the top of his game. One can only wonder at the renewable font of creativity on display.

Boss Of Me and Dancing Out In Space are probably the weakest songs here, redeemed by sheer pop craft, committed singing and unexpected lyrical twists. Bazin welcomes us to contemplate Bowie and Iman's long and happy marriage while listening to Boss Of Me, and Dancing Out In Space is filled with Torn's glorious soundscapes and perhaps the only reference to Georges Rodenbach, the 19th century Belgian symbolist, in a rock song. Both songs are a little silly, but Bowie seems in on the joke and they'd be easier to dismiss if they weren't so catchy.

How Does The Grass Grow? evokes Europe in the throes of a post-war rebirth fertilized by the blood of young men. In a nod to sampling culture it contains an "interpolation" of Jerry Lordan's Apache (a huge hit for The Shadows in 1960), which although I am unable to tease it out leads to the song being co-credited to Lordan. Perhaps this is Bowie's meta reference to his roots in bombed out pre-Beatles England, or it could be a way for Lordan's heirs to get some income. Coincidentally, Lordan went to Finchley Catholic High School, so maybe he was one of the "dirty boys" who stole a cricket bat at Finchley Fair in the earlier song. Or maybe I'm just on a Wikipedia-fueled tangent while Bowie chuckles in the corner.

I'm no fan of Jack White but I recognize the influence of his fractured riffs in the punky intro and hard-rocking verse of (You Will) Set The World On Fire. It's essentially a song of encouragement, unexpectedly set in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 60's, with the narrator pledging to do whatever it takes to bring the talents of another to fruition. If you're having trouble accomplishing something, consider programming your alarm clock to wake you each morning with this song's explosive energy.

With its Hearbreak Hotel title and Leonard Cohen melody, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die has the form of another Bowie ballad, but its theme is vengeance: "Oblivion shall own you/Death alone shall love you/I hope you feel so lonely you could die." This is Bob Dylan bleak and a long way from the consolations of Rock'n'Roll Suicide. Like much of The Next Day, the contrast between form and content is enthralling.

Bowie's love and high regard for the music of Scott Walker has been well known at least since he covered Nite Flights on Black Tie White Noise in 1993. But album closer Heat is a much more fitting homage, with a sepulchral vocal and the chilly refrain of "My father ran the prison." One way Bowie is most unlike Walker is that while he likes to appear alienated (and maybe he is), he never wants to alienate. So Heat is still beautiful to listen to, unlike one of the room-clearing tracks from Walker's more recent albums, like 2012's monumental Bish Bosch. Nite Flights was the title track of the last album by The Walker Brothers and contained four songs by Scott Walker, which, along with Harmonia's Deluxe, were the biggest influence on Lodger, so this is a debt well-paid.

Bowie is obviously at a prolific place as the deluxe edition of The Next Day comes with three bonus tracks and, while perhaps not essential, they are worth the extra couple of bucks. So She is a short and twisted pop gem, while Plan is the brittle instrumental heard at the beginning of the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight). I'll Take You There is a fast-paced rocker in the mold of How Does The Grass Grow, though not as fully realized.

Any time we listen to music, it's filtered through our expectations and experiences. With an artist as legendary as David Bowie these two factors are cranked up nearly to the breaking point. Is it even fair to judge The Next Day next to his nearly flawless RCA years, as great a run of albums as there has been in recorded music? Considering that contemporary critics often misjudged those albums as they were released, I would hesitate to compare The Next Day to one of Bowie's 70's classics. Time will likely be the best judge of that. I think there are better questions to ask: Does this album speak to me and move me today? Has it withstood close listening and scrutiny of the music and lyrics? Does it reveal growth and change in Bowie's artistry?

I can answer all of these queries with a resounding YES. The Next Day is a nearly a complete triumph, and one that is far less dependent on Bowie's artistic capital than his last two albums, Heathen and Reality, which were both quite good. As a singer, songwriter and arranger he shows enough variety of inspiration so as to be almost protean, an astonishing feat for an artist in his 60's. He sounds excited and energized and is an inspiration to those of us who plan to continue believing in rock & roll for the rest of our days. Don't wait until tomorrow: The Next Day is today.

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