Next up for Mr. Bowie was Outside (1995), a concept album realized with Brian Eno. The pair entered the studio with no written songs, just a vague wisp of inspiration from a fictional dystopian diary written by Bowie. A computer program was used to chop up and randomly cut and paste the text of the diary, and the result of this process became a starting point from which music was improvised. This music eventually coalesced into the finished album. An intensely dramatic entry in the Bowie catalog, I recently discovered this album and cannot stop listening. It’s a truly amazing work.
1997 saw the release of Earthling, an album influenced by the drums and bass culture of the 90s. As with all of Bowie’s work, he takes the kernel of an idea (in this case a style) and makes it truly his own. For example, instead of sampling other people’s music as a starting point, Bowie’s band creates their own loops to use as musical building blocks. The resulting music is highly aggressive, filled with industrial buzz saw guitars and synths. I would never recognize this as a Bowie album just from listening. Critics were pleased with the results and the recording received a Grammy nomination.
Always striving for ch-ch-ch-change, Bowie released Hours in 1999. It was his first album to miss the US top 40 in over 25 years. The music is very mellow, even falling comfortably in the Adult Contemporary category. In short, I really quite, er, like it less than intrusive surgery. As do many Bowie fans. However, I can respect the exploration of new styles, and really, in a 40-year career I can give him one album that I’m less-than-enthusiastic about. And perhaps you, Dear Reader, might love and cherish this recording. That is the beauty of personal taste.
Bowie released two more albums before taking a 10 year break: Heathen in 2002 and Reality the following year. Both showed marked improvement to the lackluster Hours. Many good songs, packed with variety, and a laid-back vocal style that characterized the remainder of Bowie’s work.
A 2004 tour was halted by emergency coronary surgery and this slowed Bowie’s output significantly. He took most of 2006 off, performing his own music on stage for the last time in November. Work continued as a composer, with occasional appearances, but a decade passed before the appearance of another album in 2013.
This is where I must wax philosophically. David Bowie, who was such a big part of my musical existence, took a 10 year break and I wasn’t even aware of it until researching this post. At some point I assumed that Bowie had peaked, didn’t have anything left in the tank, and I stopped paying attention. Now I know that a wealth of great music was created after 1983. And I’m grateful that this music will forever be a part of my listening rotation. But I remain stunned that Bowie all but disappeared for 10 years without me even knowing. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned in here somewhere.
Next month we will look at the final albums, more fabulous music, and the grand finale in an exquisite career. Stay tuned.