Today is David Bowie‘s 69th birthday, as well as the release date of his 25th studio album, enigmatically titled ★ (as in, “Mos Def and Talib Kweli are…”). As I’m sure was the case for many, many others, Bowie–his music, of course, but also his style, his whole sequence of personae, and the constellation of cultural references against which he plotted his body of work –played a formative role in my development as a music listener and, indeed, as a cultural subject in general. He is undoubtedly in my top five musical artists of all time. So, in celebration of ★ —for my money, Bowie’s most challenging, adventurous, and rewarding album in decades–we’re taking some time this month to look back on the Thin White Duke’s illustrious career: next week, in a new installment of our monthly podcast, and today, in this guide to his long and sometimes daunting discography.
Because David Bowie is such a universally recognized figure in 20th century pop music, I tried even more than usual to avoid the most “obvious” choices for the playlist below; there are plenty of other opportunities for us to hear “Changes” and “Let’s Dance” and “Young Americans,” so why waste valuable real estate here? Instead, think of this post as the first step in a deeper dive: it’s what you should consult after your interest has been piqued by one of Bowie’s numerous “Best-ofs.” But that’s not necessarily all it’s for. I myself, an unambiguous fan for over 20 years and counting, discovered a few songs in the course of creating this playlist that I didn’t know before. Granted, there are some of you out there who know a hell of a lot more than I ever will, and won’t find anything new here. But even if that’s the case, a discography this rich is well worth revisiting with fresh eyes. Here’s to 69 years of David Bowie; let’s hope he really does turn out to be an alien, and we can have him for 69 more.
It’s a strange thing to say about one of pop music’s most inveterate “album artists,” but for the first five or so years of his career, David Bowie was best experienced one song at a time. His self-titled 1967 debut album is pretty dire stuff, perhaps best contextualized as a concise primer on the pantomime-trained, Jacques Brel- and Anthony Newley-enamored artist’s campest tendencies. Bowie’s attempt at a hit single from later that year, the ponderously-titled “Let Me Sleep Beside You,” isn’t necessarily a classic either; his label at the time, Decca subsidiary Deram, declined to release it, this after they said “yes” to “The Laughing Gnome.” But it’s also probably his most listenable track since his earliest, mod-R&B singles as “Davy Jones“–even if Bowie sounds more like Neil Diamond (right down to the borderline-plagiaristic line “child, you’re a woman now”) than Ziggy Stardust. Plus, it has historical significance: “Let Me Sleep Beside You” was among his first songs produced with Tony Visconti, who has gone on to become Bowie’s longest-standing collaborator.
The next album, released in 1969 and also titled David Bowie (now more commonly known as Space Oddity), was a marked improvement; but even here, Bowie upstaged himself with his own non-LP tracks. “The Prettiest Star,” released in March 1970 and featuring Tyrannosaurus Rex frontman Marc Bolan on electric guitar, is a more memorable song than pretty much anything on the album (with the obvious exception of its quasi-title track), thanks in large part to Bolan’s characteristically idiosyncratric playing: listen to that quavering, almost meowing chord he plays under the line “How you moved is all it takes,” and you’re effectively witnessing the precise moment glam rock was invented. A more individual triumph for Bowie was the B-side, “Conversation Piece”: a lovely baroque-pop character study of a socially isolated scholar, which some have interpreted as an autobiographical reflection on the singer’s own, then-contemporary period as a struggling singer-songwriter.
It wasn’t until his third full-length, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World, when Bowie finally seemed to find his footing as an artist. For one thing, he had his first truly simpatico backing band, “the Hype,” featuring returning producer Visconti on bass, Mick “Woody” Woodmansey on drums, and Mick Ronson on guitar. It was, indeed, Bowie’s collaborators in the Hype who were most responsible for the album’s knotty prog-metal sound, best heard on the multi-movement opening track “The Width of a Circle”: they reportedly worked out the bulk of the arrangements in Bowie’s absence, while the erstwhile singer spent his time antique and male dress-shopping or curled up in codependent domestic bliss with his new wife, Angela (née Barnett). Yet even if his only contributions to “Width” really were his vocals and lyrics, the song is undeniably Bowie’s: Ronson, Visconti, and Woodmansey might sound like they’re pinch-hitting for Black Sabbath, but there’s no way Ozzy Osbourne would drop pseudo-academic references to Nietzsche and Kahlil Gibran like Bowie does–much less devote the whole third movement to a lurid fantasy about having gay sex with a demon.
If “The Width of a Circle” was early Bowie at his most borderline self-parodic, then its successor on the album, “All the Madmen,” is about as close as he came at the time to personal and revealing. Another character study, written from the perspective of a mental patient who prefers the company of his fellow “madmen” to the “sad men roaming free,” it’s a clear allusion to Bowie’s own family history of mental illness–particularly his older half-brother, Terry Burns, who spent much of his adult life confined to London’s Cane Hill psychiatric hospital before committing suicide in 1985. Not that you’d know as much from just listening to the song: at surface level it’s little more than a psych-rock riff on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Bowie rehashing counterculture bromides about madness as the only sane response to an insane world, then closing it all out with a rousing Dadaist chant of “Zane zane zane, ouvrez le chien” (literally, “open the dog”). But even without its autobiographical context of a troubled artist grappling with his own very real potential for insanity, the song remains effective, with Ronson contributing some of his most effective proto-glam guitar work in the buildup to the first chorus.
Bowie followed The Man Who Sold the World‘s stylistic breakthrough by playing even more to his quirky strengths on 1971’s Hunky Dory. Best known today for its opening track, the classic rock radio perennial “Changes,” Hunky Dory is a much weirder album than its mainstream rehabilitation might suggest. Take, for example, “Oh! You Pretty Things”: a jaunty music-hall number–originally recorded by former Herman’s Hermits frontman Peter Noone (!)–about humanity’s inevitable succession by a “coming race” of “the homo superior.” It’s effectively a sci-fi-flavored dry run for Bowie’s next big hit for another artist, Mott the Hoople‘s “All the Young Dudes.”
Even Hunky Dory‘s more conventional rock songs are too eccentric and, frankly, too gay to garner much commercial radio play. “Queen Bitch” is a straight-up Velvet Underground rip, recorded mere months before Bowie and Ronson would co-produce a comeback album for the seminal cult band’s leader, Lou Reed; like that record, it’s littered with references to underground hustler culture and patois, as if Bowie had written the lyrics with an open copy of John Rechy’s City of Night on his desk. But the album’s masterpiece is the weirdest song of all: closing track “The Bewlay Brothers,” a five-minute folk dirge with a transcendent chorus and a kaleidoscope of symbolistic lyrics that may be about the aforementioned Terry Burns, or may be about–as Bowie himself has suggested–nothing in particular. It is, in any case, one of his finest achievements as a songwriter and performer. Certainly it endeared him to at least one of his heroes: Lou Reed, in his notorious 1975 interview with established Bowie detractor Lester Bangs, responded to a jibe at his friend’s songwriting with the immortal comeback, “You ever listen to ‘The Bewlay Brothers,’ shithead?”
As legend would have it, however, in order to become the bona fide superstar he’d been trying to become for nearly a decade, Bowie first had to reinvent himself. Like all legends, it is of course something of an oversimplification: the character Bowie played for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars wasn’t his first carefully crafted persona–this is, after all, the man who had billed himself as “the actor” in the liner notes for Hunky Dory–and it certainly wouldn’t be his last. But it’s true that Ziggy, the androgynous, messianic, possibly extraterrestrial rock star he invented in early 1972 and essentially existed as until July 1973, was the one that made him an icon. If you’re even remotely interested in 1970s rock, you’ve heard “Ziggy Stardust,” “Suffragette City,” and “Starman.”
So let’s focus today on a couple of album cuts. Opener “Five Years” is easily Bowie’s most successful marriage of his early musical-theatre tendencies and rock music. Beginning with a stark, processional Woody Woodmansey drumbeat (the “Spiders from Mars” being just a rechristened version of the Hunky Dory band, featuring ex-Hype members Woodmansey and Ronson with Trevor Bolder, formerly of Ronson’s old band the Rats, replacing Visconti on bass), the song is one long crescendo, as Bowie builds up a series of apocalyptic images both sublime and ridiculous before exploding into an ecstatic chorus about a doomed Earth with five years left to live. It’s the perfect soundtrack for melodramatic teenagers of all ages. Somewhat more understated, and underrated, is the ballad “Lady Stardust”: a simultaneous tribute to and slight against Bowie’s friend, rival, and fellow-traveler Marc Bolan, set to a piano arrangement (played by Ronson) that predicts Elton John’s forthcoming shift to glam rock.
Bowie followed Ziggy Stardust with Aladdin Sane in 1973–one of the few true “follow-ups” in a career otherwise dominated by abrupt about-faces and left turns. Bowie described the album’s extremely loose concept as “Ziggy goes to America,” with most of the tracks stemming from his 1972 U.S. tour with the Spiders. More prosaically, Aladdin Sane is Ziggy with amplifiers and excess both turned up to 11. Hence “Cracked Actor,” a squalid vignette of a closeted former Hollywood star trading drugs for illicit sex, takes “Queen Bitch” from Hunky Dory and replaces its quaint appropriations of gay street life with pure, uncut sleaze. Even if this weren’t a song with lyrics like “Suck, baby, suck / Give me your head,” the dirtiness of Ronson’s riff alone should let you know that Bowie’s “Cracked Actor” is up to no good.
But the real star of Aladdin Sane was a new addition to the Spiders, classically-trained pianist Mike Garson. It’s Garson’s spooky, cabaret-style stride piano–along with Ronson’s typically explosive guitar solo–that lends some much-needed ballast to Bowie’s histrionic performance on “Time”: a comic-book Brecht/Weill pastiche that somehow succeeds in spite of its portentous lyrics and excess theatricality (how many other rock singers have the gall to include a breakdown where the only audible sounds are their own feigned, gasping breaths?). Garson is of course also responsible for the arch, almost Liberace-esque glissandoes of Aladdin Sane‘s closing track, the gorgeous and underappreciated “Lady Grinning Soul.”
Indeed, it’s telling that Garson was the only former Spider to appear on Bowie’s next album of original material, 1974’s Diamond Dogs (Pin Ups, his collection of glammed-up ’60s covers from the previous year, is good but pretty much by definition inessential). Diamond Dogs captures Bowie at his most fractured, musically and psychologically: a kind of no man’s land between Ziggy Stardust and his next full-scale reinvention, it’s a ramshackle, decadent, thrilling mashup of at least three disparate concepts: a proto-punk depiction of a Burroughsian dystopia (see the title track), a rock adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (see “Big Brother,” “We Are the Dead,” and, well, “1984“), and a final farewell/kissoff to glam rock and the Ziggy character (see “Rebel Rebel” and the Mott the Hoople-esque “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me“). And at the center of it all is the triptych of “Sweet Thing,” “Candidate,” and “Sweet Thing (Reprise)”: a sprawling, magnificently seedy tone poem about drugs, sex, shifting identities, and the specter of fascism, with Garson’s baroque piano flourishes serving as the sole source of conventional musical beauty amidst Bowie’s own vicious guitar and saxophone solos. For my money, it’s probably the best thing Bowie ever recorded–and Diamond Dogs remains a personal favorite among his albums.
But Bowie could hardly maintain the lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed by recording another Diamond Dogs–and so his next album, 1975’s Young Americans, represented his most bald-faced bid at a hit record since “Let Me Sleep Beside You.” Still, it’s hard to characterize Bowie’s move toward what he self-effacingly dubbed “plastic soul” as a sellout; it was far too weird and mercurial a move for that, with the artist actually scrapping his heavily conceptual Diamond Dogs tour two months in and replacing it with a stripped-down soul revue–a transition partly chronicled on the concert album David Live, with its bizarrely straight-faced covers of Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood” and, on the CD reissue, the Ohio Players’ “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow.” Bowie, aware of his status as an interloper in African American music, was at his best when he played up his distance from the material: railing against the culture he wanted you to think he was celebrating on Young Americans‘ title track, or employing the same debauched croon he used on “Sweet Thing” in the Philly soul-repurposing “Win,” with backing vocals by no less a personage than Luther Vandross. If nothing else, Bowie’s deliberately synthetic take on R&B would become the template for generations of white funk postmodernists, from David Byrne of Talking Heads to Beck, whose own 1999 soul-ballad pastiche “Debra” directly pilfers the shimmering guitar and saxophone intro from “Win.”
In a strange way, though, it was with his 1976 album Station to Station that Bowie demonstrated his comfort with Black music–mainly because he had gone from imitating it to fully subsuming it, as was his wont. With Station to Station‘s title track, a lumbering Teutonic mood piece that breaks out into three and a half minutes of coke-fuelled robotic disco, Bowie became the first (and quite possibly the only) artist ever to record a Krautrock tribute featuring a former James Brown sideman: Carlos Alomar, who had also been responsible for many of the most successful moments on Young Americans.
Hell, the Thin White Duke–as he was now calling himself–even tried gospel on for size with “Word on a Wing”: stripping the spiritual backbone of the African American musical tradition of its figurative and literal soul, turning it into a cry of hollowed-out desperation directed to a God in which he may or may not actually believe. And then there’s “Stay”: powered by as unstoppable a funk riff as the one Alomar brought to Young Americans’ “Fame,” with lyrics that sound like they were transcribed from an Antonioni film, it’s arguably the perfect encapsulation of Bowie’s vision of blank, nihilistic European-flavored R&B.
Of course, “blank” and “nihilistic” were pretty much the watchwords for Bowie in the mid-to-late-1970s. The cover of Station to Station was a production still from his performance as Thomas Jerome Newton, an aloof alien disguised as a human in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth; he would also choose an image of himself as Newton for the cover of his next album, 1977’s Low. It was an apt choice of a persona for Bowie during this period: paranoid, isolated, and strung out on cocaine to the point of occasional psychosis, he was as alien a presence in the real world as Newton was in the film. By Low. however, he was already beginning to pick up the pieces; it was in many ways his most human-sounding album in years. Even the Kraftwerkian instrumental opening track “Speed of Life” evokes a certain kind of optimism, like the sun finally coming up over the harsh dystopian landscape of Diamond Dogs and Station to Station.
Low was the first of a loose trilogy of late-’70s albums recorded in collaboration with Tony Visconti and Brian Eno–whose own pair of post-glam 1974 solo albums, Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), are two of the best “David Bowie” albums Bowie himself never recorded. The so-called “Berlin trilogy” was written and recorded while Bowie was attempting to kick his coke habit, partly in West Berlin. In the decades since the albums’ release, they have acquired an aura of mystery and exoticism–and, listening to a song like Low‘s “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” it’s easy to see why. Replete with Eno’s sonic trademark of heavily-phased guitars and keyboards, manipulated until they sound more like humming machines than conventional musical instruments, “Always Crashing” finds Bowie in uncommonly fragile form, reflecting on his borderline suicidal depression with a distance that is all the more affecting for its utter lack of affect. Its, and the rest of the album’s, alienated juxtaposition of raw-nerve emotion and cold, impersonal technology served as yet another blueprint for generations of Bowie acolytes, from the new-wavers of the ensuing decade to Radiohead at the turn of the century, all the way to today’s legions of aloof indie electronic outfits.
Released just ten months after Low, “Heroes” is distinctive both for its status as the only part of the “Berlin trilogy” to be recorded in Berlin (Hansa Tonstudio, to be exact, just 500 yards from the Berlin Wall), and for its (slightly) more conventional rock textures: provided, most notably, by ex-King Crimson virtuoso Robert Fripp. Fripp’s guitar is all over “Joe the Lion,” a claustrophobic album cut that refers obliquely to the self-destructive performance art of Chris Burden. With its barrage of barely-related riffs from Fripp and Alomar, as well as Bowie’s yelping, unhinged vocals, “Joe the Lion” is one of several songs on “Heroes” that seems to point the way to post-punk, even as the rest of the world was still just getting a handle on punk proper.
Bowie would take the “Heroes” band–albeit with Fripp replaced by ex-Zappa sideman Adrian Belew–on the road in early 1978, a tour that was documented later that year on the double LP Stage. The recordings, drawn from concerts in Philadelphia, Boston, and Providence, have a somewhat moribund reputation among critics, and in fairness most of the tracks don’t offer much different listening experiences than their respective studio versions. But a few of them I actually prefer in their “stage” incarnations: particularly “Breaking Glass” from Low, which extends the original song’s paranoid android funk-rock to almost twice its album length.
After Low and “Heroes,” Bowie went back to the Eno well one last time with Lodger in 1979, by concensus the weakest link of his late-decade renaissance. Lodger isn’t a bad album, per se, but it is kind of a muddled one, with a few underrated singles (“Boys Keep Swinging” being the best of the bunch) nestled between half-baked experiments and, in the case of “Red Money,” a literal remake of an Iggy Pop song. But I have to admit I’ve always been partial to “Red Sails,” a jaunty New Wave goof on vaguely pirate-y imagery that captures post-Berlin Bowie at his loosest and weirdest, with a manic Belew guitar solo on the outro.
There would be more manic guitar solos (provided once again by Fripp) on Bowie’s next album, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), in 1980. Opening track “It’s No Game (No. 1)” follows in the footsteps of “Joe the Lion” as a veritable post-punk masterpiece, with a lurching arrangement that sounds like it’s seconds from falling apart and a ragged lead vocal on which Bowie screams until he threatens to turn himself inside out. Ever the iconoclast, Bowie later follows his most abrasive song to date with one of his prettiest: the elegaically bitchy “Teenage Wildlife,” a backhanded benediction to the “new wave boys” who were then carving out their own careers using tools from Bowie’s bag of tricks.
After the release of Scary Monsters, Bowie’s 1980s must have looked like it was shaping up to be an effortless extension of his creative peak in the 1970s. “New wave boys” be damned, he was still on the cutting edge of popular music; and, with hits like “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion,” he was enjoying some of the greatest commercial success of his career–thanks in large part to the emergent form of the music video, a medium for which he was uniquely suited. Even Bowie’s more overtly mainstream moves from the dawn of the decade are tough to fault. His appearance on Queen‘s “Under Pressure” in 1981 is unimpeachable, of course; and, while the idea of David Bowie singing the theme song for Paul Schrader’s 1982 Cat Peopleremake–in character as a cat person, no less–is patently ridiculous on paper, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” is surprisingly effective in practice, thanks in large part to Giorgio Moroder’s atmospheric production.
But alas, whatever creative momentum Bowie had at the beginning of the decade, it didn’t last long. 1983’s Let’s Dance, produced by former Chic frontman Nile Rodgers, was a passable pop album buoyed by two phenomenal singles: the postmodern post-disco title track and the ebullient “Modern Love” (technically there were three hit singles, but the less said about Bowie’s murdering of his own Iggy Pop co-write “China Girl,” the better). The following year’s Tonight (named after an even worse Iggy remake) was bland, overproduced, and tedious; 1987’s Never Let Me Down was more of the same in every respect. David Bowie might have begun the ’80s looking more comfortable and adaptable than the majority of his peers from the ’70s rock scene, but he ended them as arguably the decade’s most disappointing casualty.
The rare exceptions to this rule came from Bowie’s film work. Aside from the fact that two of its five tracks feature vocals by Muppets, Bowie’s soundtrack for the 1986 Jim Henson film Labyrinth contains some of his liveliest music of the decade: the haunting synth-R&B ballad “As the World Falls Down” in particular would have made this list, but as of this writing it isn’t available on Spotify. So instead, let’s go with the theme song from Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners, released earlier the same year: as introspective as it is tuneful, it’s probably Bowie’s best song from the latter half of the ’80s. Still, lest one forgets the perilously short distance between renown and ignominy, here’s a cautionary tale: many of the same musicians who played on “Absolute Beginners”–including Hall & Oates guitarist G.E. Smith, Prefab Sprout drummer Neil Conti, Soft Boys bassist Matthew Seligman, and keyboard player Steve Nieve of (Elvis Costello‘s) Attractions–then immediately proceeded to the next session…for Bowie’s execrable 1985 Live Aid duet with Mick Jagger, “Dancing in the Street.”
After the artistic doldrums that were Bowie’s mid-to-late ’80s, it should come as n0 surprise that he began the next decade by seeking artistic rebirth through his usual means: fresh collaborators. Indeed, Tin Machine–Bowie’s attempt at a back-to-basics rock group with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and former Iggy rhythm section Tony and Hunt Sales–was the closest thing to a musical democracy Bowie had involved himself in since (charitably speaking) the Hype. Unfortunately, when Tin Machine is remembered at all (which is rarely, and much more frequently in Britain than in the States), it’s remembered as a misstep: two albums’ worth of dour, middling alternative rock from a man who played a huge role in building the foundations for the genre. If nothing else, however, a song like the anxious, squalling “I Can’t Read” from 1989’s Tin Machine was at least proof that Bowie was trying to find his muse–even if his efforts were ultimately frustrated.
Tin Machine folded in late 1992, leaving Bowie to pursue alternative means for a comeback. 1993’s Black Tie White Noise was a promising idea on paper: a reunion with Let’s Dance producer Nile Rodgers (and even, on one track, an ailing Mick Ronson) that tried valiantly to reconnect Bowie with his past triumphs in avant-pop while at the same time celebrating the quiet comforts of married life with his second wife, supermodel Iman Abdulmajid. Unfortunately, the album is a snooze; but it contained at least one moment of vitality in “Pallas Athena,” an unabashed stab at contemporary electronic dance music that became a club hit despite (or perhaps because of) its being distributed to DJs without Bowie’s name on the label (see photo above).
Once again, however, Bowie’s biggest artistic success of the early ’90s came in the unlikely form of a soundtrack: this time for the 1993 BBC adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia. Bowie’s Buddha soundtrack isn’t Hunky Dory, of course, but it is his most comfortable-sounding project in years; at once contemporary and nostalgic–Buddha is a largely autobiographical period piece, set during Kureishi’s teenage years in London in the early 1970s–with tracks like the pleasantly drifting “Untitled No. 1” pointing the way toward his introspective, arty 21st century material.
But before he turned inward, Bowie had a little more piss and vinegar left to expel. 1995’s 1. Outside was, at last, the full-blown creative resurrection he had been laboring at for a decade, reuniting him with both Brian Eno and his own lapsed penchant for sprawling experimental science fiction concept albums (though, in a decidedly mid-’90s turn, he was now generating his randomized “cut-up” lyrics via computer program). It’s a difficult record, and oddly enough a more dated-sounding one than its most conceptually similar project, Diamond Dogs; but Outside‘s ambition and gall are admirable nonetheless. And standout track “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” (perhaps best known today for its appearance in David Fincher’s Se7en) proves that Bowie still hadn’t lost his touch when it came to spotting current trends: even before its inevitable Trent Reznor remix, it was already a convincing Nine Inch Nails simulacrum.
Bowie had originally intended Outside to be the first in a five-part series of linked albums leading up to the millennium (hence the “1.” before the title); that idea was scrapped, however, and instead we got the chart-friendlier Mark Plati collaboration EART HL I NG in 1997. I remember seeing the album’s cover art, of Bowie posing with his back to the camera wearing an Alexander McQueen-designed Union Jack frock coat (see left), and thinking it was one of the coolest images my little 13-year-old Anglophile eyes had ever seen; looking back today, though, it just smacks of “Cool Britannia” opportunism, and Bowie’s spiky-haired/goateed middle-aged club kid look during this period is basically the definition of what the English call “naff.” The album itself is mostly passable but forgettable mid-’90s drum and bass stuff–but I’ll highlight “Seven Years in Tibet” as a high point in Bowie’s then-contemporary efforts to nail down a Pixies-style loud-quiet-loud alt-rock sound.
For the majority of the 1990s, Bowie’s goal had been to return himself to the forefront of popular culture, and with 1.Outside and EART HL I NG, he succeeded–maybe a little too much, in fact. By the turn of the century, he was ubiquitous again–in video games (Quantic Dream’s Omikron: The Nomad Soul), at the Vogue Fashion Awards, in Ben Stiller’s celebrity-culture spoof Zoolander–but his music was probably the least interesting thing about him. At least, that was certainly the case with 1999’s Hours…: a drowsy effort that found Bowie sounding his age in the worst possible way, remarkable mainly for being his dullest album since Never Let Me Down.
Fortunately, it only took a few years for Bowie to once again find his balance. His 2003 release Reality was actually the first current album of his I ever bought–up until then, I’d been busy catching up on his ’70s work. And it was good, though I also got the sense it wasn’t really for 19-year-old me. It’s a set of accomplished songs, ever so slightly on the “edgy” side of adult contemporary, in the vein of his previous year’s release, Heathen (which I missed at the time, and which hasn’t made much of an impression on me since). Tony Visconti was back, as was Mike Garson and Station to Station-era guitarist Earl Slick, which meant it sounded like “vintage Bowie”; but the actual songs were…well, vintage Bowie, expressing the concerns of a then-56-year-old man in a way that couldn’t possibly have meant as much to me in my youth as, say, “Moonage Daydream.”
The closer I inch toward middle age myself, however, the more Reality grows on me. In particular, closing track “Bring Me the Disco King”–a muted, jazzy ballad with Garson’s piano providing an exquisite accompaniment for Bowie’s ruminations on mortality–has gone from “mildly intriguing” to “decidedly affecting.” At the time, Bowie still seemed to me like he was going to live forever; but now, 12 years later and with my own inevitable demise starting to emerge hazily over the horizon, hearing him effectively dictate his own epitaph (“Close me in the dark, let me disappear / Soon there’ll be nothing left of me”) has become a profound experience.
It would be another ten years before Bowie released his next album, cheekily titled The Next Day. That period of relative silence was filled with unofficial and official legacy-building activities–manifold biographies, one-off collaborations with indie it-kids like the Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio, and so on–as well as persistent rumors of ill health (he had suffered a blocked coronary artery during a 2004 performance in Germany, cutting his still-final concert tour short by 14 dates). When the new album was announced out of nowhere on Bowie’s 66th birthday, complete with atmospheric new single “Where Are We Now?“, it was a huge and welcome surprise (yes, that’s right, kids, Bowie did the whole “surprise music drop” thing a whole 11 months before Beyoncé).
The surprise was so welcome, in fact, that I suspect The Next Day might have been just a bit overvalued at the time. Don’t get me wrong: it’s an admirable album, one that goes even further to recapture the sound of Bowie’s glory years than Reality; but it’s also a little on the staid side, with many of the songs failing to make much of an impression on at least this sympathetic listener. Still, even I can’t slight a song like “If You Can See Me”: a manic duet with longtime bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, with an arrangement every bit as angular as anything on Lodger, it’s a performance with more energy and verve than any of us have a right to expect from a senior citizen.
Which brings us to the new album, ★. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t had the chance to fully process this record yet; it may very well be the case that my personal enthusiasm for it will fade and I’ll be left considering it, like its predecessor, an admirable but not amazing effort. Right now, though, I’m loving its unfettered sense of adventure: from the 10-minute title track (which you might recall made our year-end podcast last month) to the violent remakes of 2014 non-LP tracks “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” to my choice for this post: second single “Lazarus,” an explicit return to Bowie’s Man Who Fell to Earth character (the song shares its title with the recent off-Broadway semi-sequel to the film, co-written by Bowie with playwright Enda Walsh and starring Michael C. Hall), with heaps of foreboding atmosphere courtesy of a backing band led by contemporary jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin. The most exciting thing about ★ is that it doesn’t really sound like anything else David Bowie has released–which, in a weird way, makes it feel all the more like a true David Bowie album. One thing I will say: for the first time in a long time, I’m as eager to hear what Bowie does next as I am to revisit his old stuff. And I think that’s a sentiment Bowie–ever of the moment, rarely the nostalgist–would appreciate.