Bowie Has Left the Planet

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10 years of nothingness had passed when seemingly out of nowhere David Bowie released The Next Day. People assumed he’d retired from music, the album came as a complete surprise. Although it took two years to record, Bowie made sure it was kept entirely secret. If I’d been paying attention to his career, had known he was still capable of making incredible music, I would have been thrilled! But the release passed me by, unnoticed. Until now.

When I think of Bowie, I tend to think of Suffragette City and other songs in that vein. If one approaches his later work with the expectancy of Ziggy Stardust rocking out, one will be disappointed. Unlike mosquitos filled with dinosaur DNA, artists are not bugs captured in amber. Their work evolves over time. People age, their capabilities change. In the case of David Bowie, his voice is the most noticeable difference, no longer as flexible, no longer as energetic or dynamic. Yet … still amazing. Melodies tend to be a bit more monotone, tempos slower, dynamics softer. But this isn’t better or worse, it’s just new.

The Next Day includes songs that range from full-on rockers ([You Will] Set The World on Fire), to the slow and delicate (Where Are We Now?) to standard anthems (How Does the Grass Grow?) to chaos infused with fits of stability (If You Can See Me). Styles are incredibly varied. This is classic Bowie yet innovative. While you might find some tarnish amongst the glitter, the album is certain to please.

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The following year, 2014, saw the release of Nothing Has Changed, a career-spanning collection of greatest hits reaching back to 1969 and wrapping up with selections from 2013’s The Next Day. All phases of Bowie’s career, other than Tin Machine, are covered in this comprehensive release. If you’re looking for an introduction to 45 years of music, Nothing Has Changed is an excellent choice.

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And finally, all too soon, I come to that which I’ve been putting off, the acceptance of mortality. Perhaps when I was unaware of his later work I didn’t care as much, but now I’m truly sorry I’ve heard the last of David Bowie. His music will always be there for me, but it is complete, finite, there will be no more.blackstar

In my research for this series of posts I made an intriguing discovery: every David Bowie album has a picture of Bowie on the cover. Sometimes it’s a fairly simple photo, other times a cartoonish drawing, a stylized scenario, or even, as in the case of The Next Day, the re-use of a previous album cover (Heroes) with Bowie’s photo obscured by a white square. Every cover sports a picture of Bowie except for the cover of his final album. Blackstar features the image of a black star. This seems significant. We could ponder the symbolism of a black star or the clues found in the album’s lyrics, but instead of dwelling upon the sadness of death, let us rejoice that Blackstar is a stunning collection of music.

Somewhat in the same vein as The Next Day, the album features songs varying in style tremendously, laid-back vocals and a quiet/ethereal/sparse mood. It’s one of the best efforts from Bowie’s later career, a thoroughly satisfying and lush listening experience. The opening song, Blackstar, is simply gorgeous. Beautiful keyboards, a dark mood and a story well-matched by its music. Sue is an unsettling song filled with discomfiting music. Wild, crazy percussion and bass play frantically beneath sparse, languishing vocals. The album concludes with a celebratory mood in I Can’t Give Everything Away, a wonderful career-ending song.

And then, Bowie left the planet.

Bowie, David Bowie

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Confession time: I’ve never been a rabid Bowie fan. Oh sure, his music is incredible and I’ll happily listen to it over and over, but only songs recorded between 1969 and 1983. I’m fairly unaware of albums recorded after Let’s Dance. Bowie got me to the church on time and then I abandoned his music.

When he died I fervently resisted the urge to jump on the bandwagon and sing Bowie’s praises, viewing his last album as the most incredible ending to a perfect musical life. I assumed plenty of others would take up that mantel. But when I finally did hear Blackstar recently, I was stunned by how spectacular the music is. And only then did I realize that I had no idea what Bowie had been up to for the past 30+ years.

Thus began a quest to quickly get a feel for Bowie’s “recent” albums, to look for trends in his compositions, and to see how the final album fits into the big picture. So buckle in, Major Tom, and prepare for the journey of a lifetime.

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Frequently bands put out a remarkable first album and never again reach the same level of accomplishment. The reason for this is simple: An entire lifetime of composing goes into a first album. A second album has roughly a year in which to be put together.

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So here’s something beyond amazing: From 1969 to 1980 David Bowie put out more than one album per year, many of them absolutely brilliant. Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Hunky Dory (1971), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), Pin Ups (1973), Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans (1975), Station to Station (1976), Low (1977), Heroes (1977), Lodger (1979) and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980). The timeless songs found on these albums include Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things and Life on Mars? (1971), Ziggy Stardust and Suffragette City (1972), The Jean Genie (1973), Rebel Rebel and Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans and Fame (1975), Golden Years (1976), Heroes (1977), Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Ashes to Ashes and Fashion (1980).

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Not bad for a career. But that only covers ¼ of the time Bowie filled in the “musician” bubble on standardized forms.

Eric Carr, in reviewing Bowie’s 2003 album Reality sums up the last ¾ of Bowie’s career quite nicely:

“Bowie’s work is traditionally seen in a terrifically damaging binary– common law states that if his work isn’t brilliant, it’s terrible…”

This is a fair assessment of how Bowie’s post-1983 albums were received. Realize that he was not content to repeat previous successes but always strived for something different, a particular concept or composing strategy. Some forays into new territory were more successful than others. Often the results did not meet fans’ expectations. Judgments were harsh. And 1983/84 were pivotal years in this process.

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Before the release of Let’s Dance, Bowie was immensely popular yet associated with fringe or avant-garde culture. Making a complete left turn, his 1983 album was straight-ahead danceable pop music. The 1984 follow-up Tonight, featuring similar music, made Bowie more commercially successful than ever and brought in a legion of new fans. However, the commercial success came with negative reviews; to his long-time followers, Bowie was not acting like Bowie.

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Three years passed before the release of another album, Never Let Me Down. Three hit-singles, commercially successful, but critically panned. Later in life Bowie felt that he had not been involved enough in the process of making this album. He commented that the time after Let’s Dance was a bad one for him artistically.

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Bowie’s next two albums were with the band Tin Machine, and it wasn’t until 1993 that he released another solo album, Black Tie White Noise. This album moved in a new direction of darker music, more intensely personal songs. The result? Critical and commercial success. The music is still funky and dance-oriented, but not poppy, somewhat similar to synth-pop band Heaven 17. Lyrics focused on Bowie’s wedding to Iman and his step-brother’s suicide. Highly personal and dark.

With still more than 20 years of music before the release of Blackstar, stay tuned for more on David Bowie’s later career next posting, same Bowie time, same Bowie channel.

Listen Up! February New Music

Blackstar Cover Art

For those of you not looking for another Bowie reflection/review, TL;DR, skip to the list at the bottom. For those of you who are into it, read on.

January was a tough time for many music fans, with the loss of some pretty legendary names. For me, it was the death of David Bowie that hit hardest. I can’t claim to have been a Bowie superfan, but his music was ever-present in my youth, and became the soundtrack to a lot of great memories as I grew into adulthood. Beyond liking the music Bowie created, I was even more fascinated by his ability to constantly reinvent himself, turning life into performance art. Nothing exposes the depth of this artistry better than the way he orchestrated his final months, turning his death into a powerful statement on 21st Century privacy, lifelong creativity, and going on your own terms.

The result of this period was Blackstar (officially ), David Bowie’s final album, released on the artist’s 69th birthday, just two days before his death. I will never forget the shock I felt upon hearing of Bowie’s death just days after celebrating this latest release. What a surreal experience it was to go back and re-listen to the album within the confines of a completely different context. Lyrics took on haunting new meanings; music videos became more somber and stirring. The Thin White Duke was saying goodbye; we just weren’t listening.

This album would have been a great listen without the backstory, but knowing all the details and the way they were carefully crafted and presented just makes Blackstar the stuff of legend. It made me think a long while about my own mortality and wonder how I would choose to confront it: with careful plans and aggressive strides to make sure I left my loved ones with something lasting and memorable, or with fear and denial until my final moments. David Bowie’s last act showed us that it was possible to die with courage, dignity, and a flair for the dramatic. As he so eloquently said from the stage on his 50th birthday “I have no idea where I’m going from here, but I promise I won’t bore you” – I’m sure that even after his death, the legacy of David Bowie will continue to intrigue and entertain us for years to come.

That’s the long story of one of my new arrival picks, so I’ll just give you a list of brief highlights for the rest. Place your holds now! In the case of Blackstar, it might be a little bit, but it’s worth the wait.

Blackbird cover imageMiloš Karadaglić – Blackbird: The Beatles Album (Mercury Classics) – love the Beatles? Like classical guitar? This is the album for you.

Outskirts Cover ImageShemekia Copeland – Outskirts of Love (Alligator Records) – A fiery, driving mix of blues, rock, and soul. It’s the type of album you want to listen to on repeat.

For One to Love CoverCecile McLorin Salvant – For One to Love (Mack Avenue Records) – Delightful follow up to Salvant’s 2013 Grammy-nominated album, WomanChild. This 26-year-old jazz virtuoso has a phenomenal voice and a load of creativity.

Image from wondem.bandcamp.com

Image from wondem.bandcamp.com

Dexter Story – Wondem (Soundway) – For listeners looking to try a little of everything, look no further. Story effortlessly blends funk, jazz, soul, and traditional East African instrumentation and vocals to create vibrant and hypnotic soundscapes.

Cool Uncle CoverCool Uncle – Cool Uncle (Fresh Young Minds) – What happens when smooth jazz icon Bobby Caldwell gets together with Grammy-winning producer Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, John Legend, Jennifer Hudson)? Well they make beautiful music, of course, and they have a great time doing it. This is largely a pop/funk/RnB record, with playful nods towards the worlds of smooth jazz and even yacht rock. It may sound borderline cheesy, but it’s the kind of cheese you could fall in love with. It’s great to see people with this level of talent having fun with their craft.