Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Bowie and the Last Rock 'n' Roll Album
Yes, it is that good.
The reviews almost scared me off- well, that's not exactly true, I was going to buy it sooner or later. But my experience with the opinions of critics has usually acted as a disincentive. The singles didn't really hit me at first, which I now realize was a function of their pretentious, "transgressive" videos greatly distracting from their rich and layered melodies. Both tracks improve by leaps and bounds on their own terms, "Where Are We Now?" being a gorgeous, atmospheric ballad in the tradition of "Life on Mars" and "Slip Away."
At first listen I thought the production was a bit on the spare side, lacking in the rich atmospherics of classic Bowie/Visconti (or Bowie/Eno, in the case of Outside). A case of a misleading first impression- subsequent listens reveal a host of harmonic undulations that Visconti cannily subdues in the mix, particularly a number of rich vocal arrangements. In these, Bowie's longtime secret weapon Gale Ann Dorsey shines, her meaty, soaring alto bouncing brilliantly off her boss's usual armory of baritones and falsettos and Anthony Newley impersonations.
Bowie's musical director Gerry Leonard also brings a lot to the table with his catalog of postpunk atmospherics, which again Visconti tastefully mixes, avoiding Edge-like histrionics. The backbeat and the lead vocal stand front and center here, with all of the embellishment supplementing and subordinate to the rhythm and melody. All-stars like David Torn and Earl Slick check in with signature riffs.
This is Bowie in Bowiemode, referencing his own catalog and influences, rather than whatever is trendy at the moment.
The fact that nothing is trendy in the old school sense anymore, that everything you hear these days is almost punishingly unoriginal, serves Bowie well. At 66 years of age, he no longer feels that midlife crisis need to hop on someone else's bandwagon, realizing now that the trend trains always go off the rails in extremely short order. Bowie now accepts that he is a genre unto himself, that his borrowings have congealed into something entirely original. The rest of us realized that in 1979, but it's always easier to judge from a safe distance.
Of course, I'm no one to talk, since two of my favorite Bowie albums are two of his most-notorious "me too" bandwagon hoppers- the Industrial-derived Outside and the jungle-inspired Earthling (remember jungle? I didn't think so). But what made those albums work- even if the superficialities put some people off- was the rich vein of classic Bowie songcraft hiding beneath the electronic bleeps and blargs. Trent Rezor's remix of "Afraid of Americans" was dreadful, stripping away the insistent, slinky groove that was the entire point of the song, but it still got Bowie some cred he'd lost and struggled to recover ever since Tonight.
If Heathen was Bowie's sequel to Hunky Dory, with its dreamy sentiment and soaring choruses, then The Next Day is certainly his Scary Monsters redux. I'm sick to death of hearing about that 1980 classic too, but the same thesis of consolidation and reflection is at work here as well.
Scary Monsters was Bowie taking all of his lifts, cops and borrowings of the previous ten years and boiling them down to a coherent statement. The Next Day does the same, only there are a lot more years to consider, as well as a serious health scare reminding Bowie that he too is mortal, even if a cursory review of his biography would lead you to believe he was superhuman. Certainly his daily cocaine intake in the 70s would have killed a platoon of Marines.
Then factor in that he subsisted on a diet of glasses of milk and the occasional raw egg while sustaining a touring and recording schedule that would cripple a normal human being and you start to wonder if The Man Who Fell to Earth wasn't entirely fictional.
But the four-pack-a-day habit of noxious French cigarettes eventually caught up with Bowie in 2004, leading to an onstage coronary event. That brush with the grave informs every note on The Next Day. He was touring Reality that year, a rushed and OKish follow-up to Heathen and the ten-year lapse between albums leads you to believe that he'd learned a deeper lesson that fateful night, that building a legacy was more important than releasing a record simply to wrest some touring funds from his paymasters.
The subsequent collapse of the record industry is another ghost in the room here. Bowie doesn't need any more money but he's also canny enough to realize that the days of Tonight's and Hours's and Reality's are long since past. Attention is at a premium so you'd best save the filler for leaked MP3s.
But the upshot of this is that Bowie has now entered his sixth decade of releasing important music, an almost-unparalelled feat. His contemporaries- The Stones, the remaining Beatles, Elton John, etc- have resigned themselves to victory laps, touring their indelible catalogs and charging exorbitant prices for their upscale, aging audience.
Bowie still matters- his concept of artifice as authenticity still resonates with younger artists, and certainly the spectacle-driven displays stars like Madonna, Beyonce and Katy Perry come right from Bowie's playbook via the network of largely gay stylists and Svengalis who use these singers as disposable, scale-model Barbie dolls. Cult sci-fi series Fringe borrowed Bowie's real name and alien alter-ego for two of their dimension-hopping villains, a tribute to a man who spent his life fucking with boundaries. Vintage style Bowie tees are de rigeur accessories for young hipsters, even if they never heard his records.
But boundaries are hardening once again and perhaps Bowie's prestige is one last look at a time when you could still fuck with barriers.
Bowie looked at the borders of dichotomy- rock/disco, gay/straight, white/black, left/right, lowbrow/highbrow- and crossed them. In the early 70s it was the Right that was outraged by this transgression and now it's an even more vindictive and totalizing liberal ascendancy filling the inquisitor offices. He first broke through on the scene as a bisexual spaceman but the new inquisitors insist now that no such thing can possibly exist since bisexuals and spacemen are entirely mythical creatures.
Rock and Roll was reborn in the late 40s after a two-thousand year slumber but it was Bowie's peers- postwar English kids chafing at the vestiges of Victorianism that defined what we now see as classic rock. They disdained the soppy fake rock of Cliff Richard and rediscovered the roots of their passion, Blues and R&B journeymen who enjoyed revivals thanks to the patronage of fans like Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page.
Bowie did the same, but added a whole kitbag of influences to the mix- mime, high fashion, high art, avant garde electronic music and perhaps most crucially, occultism. It's perhaps no accident that the two artists who picked up the pieces of the Aquarian crash and burn and created a music that was a mythology unto itself- Jimmy Page and Bowie- were both serious students of British occultism, Crowley in Page's case and Dion Fortune and Austin Osman Spare in Bowie's.
Bowie was also a serious UFOlogist from an early age and many of his most passionate songs - 'In Memory of a Free Festival', 'Starman', 'Loving the Alien', 'Looking for Satellites'- are paeans to UFOnauts, who Bowie sees essentially as spiritual intruders, not anthropologists from Zeta Reticuli.
This album was heralded by the video for 'Stars', directed by Floria Sigismondi who also gave us Katy Perry's 'ET' video. The ignorant will see it as a comment on celebrity or some such other tediousness but those in the know see the tell-tale hallmarks of the numinous intruders. But don't tell anyone- I don't want to rouse the army of the new inquisitors from their Cheez Whiz and their galleries of junior high school upskirt jpgs.
Taking ten years off was an excellent idea, since he avoided the contamination of one of the most depressing and culturally-dead periods of modern times. But he also took the time to assemble top-flight material. Hopefully he won't mitigate the effect with a hasty follow-up of lesser material.
So what does it sound like? Well, it's impossible to do justice to music with words but suffice it to say The Next Day offers a rich palette of melody, songs that will stick in your head, particularly after a few careful listens. And those melodies are all brought home with top-rate playing and production. This isn't work- it's a party. It's not "challenging" Bowie, it's Bowie at his most accomodating.
It might be the last true rock 'n' roll album you will ever hear.