Blackstar

I’ve had a long time to process David Bowie’s death now. During my break at work, I was skimming through Facebook when I saw a RIP status, and I thought it was some joke, and then I frantically checked the news and saw that it was true. I had never cried at a celebrity’s passing before, but I went home and I cried for an hour with this music playing. I knew that Blackstar was something special from when the title track was released, and I listened to it more than fifty times during the month of December. Like, The Next Day was good, but this was on another level. I mentioned in my review for the Next Day that timing is everything. That applies even more to Blackstar, because the event of his death is woven into the narrative.

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What does David Bowie mean to me? That’s the question that popped up a lot while listening to all of his music from beginning to end. He wasn’t just another musician that I liked, and it’s not the naive thought that he would live forever and my reality was shattered. It’s not that. David Bowie was special to me, because he made me feel comfortable. Listening to him in high school, I was caught by how weird he was. I didn’t realize it then, but he helped me come to my self-identity. He was feminine when everywhere masculinity was valued, and I think that his gender-bending and sexual identity was important in creating the foundation for my beliefs today.

I know everybody has their own story or feelings, but I think what’s important and notable above all else is that Bowie lived his own myth. From day one to the last day, to the next and another day. Blackstar was an art project. He was diagnosed with cancer a year and a half before releasing Blackstar, and it was an impetus for him to get everything out of his head before he couldn’t anymore. You could argue that Bowie was at his most effective when he dug the music out from inside of himself, Low being the best example. He combined the inside and the outside so effectively, and Blackstar continues that method, taking Bowie’s inner feelings about dying, commenting on it at times like a nonchalant outsider.

I started thinking about the five stages of grief a while ago while listening to this. It doesn’t fit neatly, but I think there are elements of it here. Denial in the title track, anger in Girl Loves Me, a little bit of bargaining and depression in Dollar Days, and acceptance throughout the whole album but most strongly in I Can’t Give Everything Away.

It’s notable that the two most aggressive songs are the two that were first created with his impending death guiding them. Tis a Pity She Was a Whore and Sue were both released in very different, very rough forms in 2014. They ostensibly songs about being made a fool by love, but I have the nagging impression that Sue isn’t a story about a woman having spurned him. It’s much looser, much jazzier in its original version, nearing seven and a half minutes long, building on a jazzy brass section. I think he was still coming to terms with his diagnosis, Sue being the personification of death perhaps. In the middle of the original version, he builds to a climactic screaming “goodbye” followed by the brass section spitting out low burps before the final verse. The most telling moment is in the second verse, “Sue, the clinic called. The x-ray’s fine.” If that’s a coincidence, it’s a mighty big one. The song then peters out on the snare. The album version is shorter and given a much more bossy and energetic tone, exploding with a great low end, tightened up considerably.

Tis a Pity is also rough in its original version. I love how muted the vocals are, like he’s being smothered. It opens with sounds similar to maybe Tom Waits’ Hoist That Rag or something else on Real Gone, and the whole song has a similar production quality that works astoundingly well. The band comes in wheezing and puffing out of sync. It pounds you in the gut as Bowie wails in tortured falsetto with the cacophony all around him. It may not be directly about his condition, but it certainly has that feeling of helplessness that might come with the knowledge of it, especially the line “tis my curse, I suppose” that’s drowned out. In the end, he’s eaten up by the noise. On the album, it’s a lot cleaner and a whole lot less cacophonous, but it has a similar energy. I like the deep breath that it sounds like Bowie takes in the beginning and the breathing you can hear throughout the first minute of the song.

I like the story behind these two songs. Bowie went to a little jazz club to watch the players would become his band for this album, and little by little people began to notice that David Bowie was there. After the band finished, he left without speaking to the band, but later sent them an email asking them to play with him on these two songs in 2014 and later the Blackstar album. I think it’s a cute story and plays into the mystery of David Bowie, the one that he unintentionally cultivated over the ten years he settled into his neat little domestic life.

The rest of the songs are more direct, with the title track functioning as an introduction to this weird new world, combining dark, dense atmosphere with sexy pop from a 69 year old man in a leotard. I love the call-and-response lyrics during that part, where he repeatedly denies the previous title, pressing that “I’m a blackstar.” From the beginning of his career, he was creating the identity that he was a star. I read a quote from Andy Warhol that a superstar is someone who convinces others that he or she is a star, and Bowie was doing that even before he was an actual star. Now he’s creating his own star again.

Lazarus, released just before the album dropped, is the most poignant song on the album. I don’t know how much time he knew he had left, because based on Tony Visconti’s account, the end must have come more quickly than imagined, but there must have been some idea that this might have been the last goodbye, as he directly references that he’s in heaven. The saxophone is both mournful and a little frantic, clinging to life but finally doused out in the end. It’s not the only time that Bowie references death so on the nose. In Dollar Days, admitting that he’s okay if he doesn’t see his green pastures again, he cuts each verse with, “I’m dying to” / “I’m dying, too”. This and he closing track are have a totally different feel to them than the rest of the album. He sounds tired, old. Pitchfork compared it to Five Years or Ashes to Ashes, all songs where Bowie is luxuriating in sadness and turning loss into triumph.

I Can’t Give Everything Away is the most heartbreaking for me. Sampling the harmonica from Low’s A New Career in a New Town, it’s his final trip. I love the way he holds it in, “I can’t give everything…. away” and the way that his pronunciation of “give” sometimes sounds like “keep”. It touches on Bowie’s legacy, his music and his art. He can’t give everything he wanted, but he gave the most he could.

In Pitchfork’s afterword on Bowie, they wrote one line that really made an impression on me. “David Bowie’s greatest albums always opened us up to new worlds; Blackstar leads to the most mysterious, frightening, and unknowable of all.” It’s amazing how Bowie set this up, like one last wink from beyond the grave, knowing the very real possibility that he would die before it was released, and narrating like a spectator of his own death.

In his final two songs, he can barely finish his thoughts, because really there is no end. He can’t give everything away. Like Lazarus coming back to life, he’s dying to fool us all again and again. It’s just a new career in a new town, and he’s trying to, he’s dying to…

The Next Day

David Bowie is old, and he lives in his own world, apart from everyone else. That’s what this album says. He had all but disappeared for ten years, and then on his birthday he announced The Next Day. From the self-defacing album art, the newly developed font for the title, the lack of covers, the secrecy, and Visconti’s own comments about how they don’t listen to contemporary music, this was an album made in a bubble. The Next Day doesn’t sound like anybody but David Bowie. This is in stark contrast to almost the entirety of his career, where he borrowed from his surroundings, appropriating them at his own convenience.

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This album could have been a posthumous release, a lumping of a bunch of recordings he had done over the years even. In fact, even the announcement and the release of the album hardly contained Bowie at all. I can’t remember Bowie actually being involved in the announcements, just Tony Visconti operating as his speaker. It wasn’t a new, current sound like other albums he had done. The album art didn’t have Bowie on it, and it came off like a joke at first. I’ve come to like it and appreciate what it says about design and art since then, and it’s so very Bowie, like claiming that his “lost” album is his favorite. The art encapsulates perfectly the album. It wasn’t “new” so much as writing over his old music.

I keep wondering if Bowie knew about his illness when he was making this album. All I heard was that, as of 2016, he had been diagnosed just a year and a half before, meaning that he couldn’t have known at this point. There had been so many rumors, I remember reading people saying he was dying. The Flaming Lips even wrote a song about it, tacky title but good song. Where Are We Now? seems like a cruel joke. Bowie’s back, but he sounds like he’s singing his own eulogy. The next two singles, The Stars Are Out Tonight and The Next Day, are a lot more lively, but continue to hint on that same feeling. Despite singing with utmost vitriol and anger, making lyrical and vocal delivery references to some of the songs on Low, The Next Day’s chorus still has him singing, “Here I am, not quite dying.” Not quite. On The Stars and in its video, he plays the Bowie of the past ten years, content in his neat little domestic life, attacked by the specters of his past, actual doppelgängers. He’s even married to Tilda Swinton in it (and my heart burst with jealousy). He sings, “I hope they live forever”, and I immediately think about him, a star himself.

Drenched in nostalgia, the album sounds like it was left to the cobwebs in the attic for a while, with old-sounding production created by mostly old guys, it’s an album without a future. When you think about David Bowie, you think about the ‘70s or Let’s Dance, but one of his most important albums was released in the ‘90s, Outside. This is where If You Can See Me and Heat come from, like Bowie trying to write the follow-up to that album – not to mention Blackstar. Heat is my favorite of all the songs. It’s bleak, thick with heady atmospheric synths, Gail Ann Dorsey playing a bass so buoyant it could shake the entire earth, and an acoustic guitar that makes it feel real and here and now.

But for as old as this album sounds, there are some amazing techniques. I’m thinking of the crunchy guitars and the controlled echo of the drums of Love is Lost. It’s merciless, grounding your ego into the dust, and instead of taking a look at all your accomplishments as you die, he’s basically saying you haven’t done a thing and it was wasted time. One of the rare contemporary moments has James Murphy making an awesome remix of the song on the bonus disc built on a clapping beat.

The album ends perfectly on Heat, but the bonus EP has so many great songs, too. In fact, half the songs in the middle of the album sound like b-sides, that could have been put on the EP themselves. Atomica starts out pretty basic but quickly gets weird as he tries to sing two lines in the space of one and sings in cliches. It’s like a very knowing self-parody. The same goes for Like a Rocket Man, Born in a UFO, God Bless the Girl (my second favorite bonus track), I’ll Take You There, and So She (my favorite bonus track), sounding like he’s trying to write songs for the ‘70s, and I’m eating it up. I’d Rather Be High gets a wonderful “Venetian Mix” with harpsichord. They aren’t amazing songs, but they’re fun little detours.

The songs that were left on the album though don’t try to be songs from the past so much as reworkings of the past, getting past sounds into the present. Dirty Boys, Bowie sounding as beat-up and ready to beat up as Tom Waits, has a great nod to China Girl. Dancing Out in Space is bouncy and fun despite probably being about someone dead in space. Valentine’s Day may be a mid-tempo rocker, but the backing she-la-la-las are wonderful, and the anger Bowie put into the video of a song ostensibly about Valentine’s Day is a riot. Gail Ann Dorsey’s excellent bass is all over this album, most memorably on Boss of Me for me. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is one of the most powerful of the stretch of songs after If You Can See Me, the most talked-about moment of course being the terribly conspicuous callback to Five Years. Who knew it was only three.

Would The Next Day have been as well-received had he not been retired for so long? I doubt it, but I don’t think he would have made it or anything like it. It’s not that far removed from what you would have expected his follow-up to Reality to sound like, but at the same time, this is the album of someone who was only making music because he wanted to. It’s hardly even a concise album, more of a spring cleaning of everything he had in his head for ten years. It sounds out of time, borrowing from Tin Machine, sampling his own songs, re-engineering the past for the present. Music doesn’t always stand on its own. Like Station to Station or the Berlin trilogy whose enjoyment is enhanced with knowledge of their backstory, The Next Day is a better album because it broke his long absence. Bowie was back, and he was gone as soon as he arrived.

Reality

Reality was the last David Bowie album for a long time. It comes off as a pretty inconsequential album, and it would have been an anticlimactic finale to such a prolific artist had Bowie never come back the next day (haha sorry). I love how he delights in irreverence while at the same time holding to the ideals of an old man’s record, even parodying himself, titling the album Reality but featuring his anime avatar on the cover. It’s ridiculous and corny, but I kind of like it because of that. It’s also a super interesting record, because I am convinced that he was – whether purposeful or accidental – borrowing more from Never Let Me Down than any other album. I mentioned way back when I was talking about Tin Machine, that I felt like these albums were surprisingly influential in the long wrong despite being afterthoughts for a lot of people. I didn’t catch it at all when I was listening to Never Let Me Down, but since I’ve been listening to Reality this week, I can’t shake this feeling. I think that Bowie was trying to correct that album with Reality, or rather to re-do it in a way. And if that was his intention, he absolutely succeeded. I defended it to some extent, saying that it wasn’t perfect but it had potential had it been done properly, and I think that Reality brings a lot of truth to that.

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From the get-go, New Killer Star actually borrows guitar parts from ’87 and Cry. Listen to half of ’87 and then switch to New Killer Star, and you’ll hear exactly what I mean. In any case, I love how he summons the album from those quirky guitar notes, and this song is just killer (sorry) as it’s bass and guitar riff grind into you. The bass is especially great as it does a little walk-up right before the chorus (it sounds straight out of John, I’m Only Dancing even). Bowie sounds incredible here, too, proving that age would never beat him down. I love how he starts the song emotionlessly, but suddenly he’s singing like a he’s suddenly growing younger during the pre-chorus, pulling off a wonderfully Ziggy-like “I’m thinking now”. I love his constant fascination with stars, and here it sounds more like he’s singing “nuclear star”. Like Never Let Me Down, a couple of the songs on this album are political, and the title could be a reference to that.

I really liked Cactus on Heathen. It was kooky and a lighthearted little cover on a mostly serious album, and I think that Pablo Picasso serves a really similar function. It might even be better, because the spanish guitar is so cool, and I love how Bowie is singing this, like, punk song about how Pablo Picasso hooked up with a lot of women but nobody called him an asshole. I’ve always wondered why Bowie loved doing covers when he had so many great b-sides and stand-a-lone songs, and I think that as creative as he was, he was a lover of music. He posted that list of his favorite records, made an entire cover album, and is constantly mimicking popular music trends. In a lot of cases, Bowie doesn’t make the cover his own, but I think he got a lot better at it in the second half of his career, and Pablo Picasso is a good example of that. Try Some Buy Some, on the other hand is not. I don’t think it quite goes down with the likes of the covers on Tonight, and I get what he was trying to do with the song. It’s also an example of how he still holds to the ideals of what an album by an old musician should be. It should be full of regret, nostalgia, emotions linked to the past, and Try Some Buy Some is exactly that. He had covered the Beatles before, worked with John Lennon, and George Harrison had died just a year or two before he made Reality, and to be honest, I think that Bowie has more in common with Harrison than any of the other Beatles for his genre-bending and mystic aura. That said, he doesn’t do that much with this cover, and it’s the most skippable song on the album.

If he sounded old on Try Some Buy Some, he sounded ancient and tired on The Loneliest Guy. It’s a pretty song, and it sounds so deep. What I mean is, it sounds like everything is really far. Just listen to that guitar way back there, drifting out into the black while Bowie sounds like he’s literally turning to dust before our very ears. On Days he also sounds his age, playing the kind of song that old people do, and it comes off as kind of a retread, but it’s so pretty and it’s a retread that I really enjoy. I love the sound of the keyboards, bouncy and in total contrast with the tone of the song. It’s a minor song, but it’s lovely. It feels a similar to the title track of Never Let Me Down, though a bit more sophisticated.

I first got into Reality through satellite radio when I was in high school. That’s where I first heard Aladdin Sane’s title track and was enamored with Mike Garson’s wild solo. I later heard Fall Dog Bombs the Moon on the same station and immediately got Reality. It sounded great, a Bowie that had never heard or imagined before. He doesn’t sound like the messiah coming down from the stars, he sounds like an un-phased commentator on the situation. He’s as emotionless on this song as he was when he began the album, nonchalantly singing about doom and gloom. I love the muted crunchiness of the guitars, and I’ve always liked the imagery of the chorus.

Bring Me the Disco King is the big song on this album, but I want to make a case for She’ll Drive the Big Car. It’s another one that strongly reminds me of a correction of what he wanted to do on Never Let Me Down, partly because of the harmonica, but also because of the storytelling. It has a cool, groovy quality to it, with Bowie singing about a woman hating her middle aged married life, considering something deadly. I love the vocal effects on Bowie’s voice during the verses and the imagery is wonderful, lines like “love lies like a dead cloud” is spooky but enthralling, and the descending (minor chord?) chords are wonderful. It’s just an absolutely chilling song, and the groove of the song is like being in a car on a gray day, contemplating murder with your family in the car. “Just a little bit faster now” is straight-up menacing. The Young Americans shout-out is subtle but shoots lightning up my body with giddiness, the little “sad, sad soul” and the handclaps. Gosh! It’s not necessarily my favorite (that’s still reserved for Disco King), but it’s certainly the most interesting song on the album, sonically and structurally.

But who am I kidding, Bring Me the Disco King is one of his masterpieces. I would kill to hear how it transformed during the 10 years between when he first wrote it to Reality. Though it doesn’t matter, because this final version is wonderfully ghostly, and it plays out like a dirge. Mike Garson reins in his wilder instincts, but he still sounds amazing playing so controlled with those sauntering, jazzy drums pushing him along. For a while, I thought this was Bowie’s final gift, and what a career closer it was until the next day (haha sorry again). I said that Bowie was obsessed with death on Heathen, and here he alludes to it in a much different way. Here, he’s the devil calling back his son, and I’m heartbroken more than ever now. In a way, this is still part of his last goodbye. “You promised me the ending would be clear,” he sings, recalling “five years is all we’ve got” so long ago. “Close me in the dark, let me disappear,” takes on a whole new meaning in retrospect after having seen his video for Lazarus. “Soon there’ll be nothing left of me, nothing left to release.”

Then he’s gone, the disco king gone invisible. For ten years at least.

Heathen

Heathen is a huge milestone for Bowie. For the first time since Scary Monsters, he reconnected with Tony Visconti, and what a magical combo they are. I don’t want to attribute to much to Visconti, because Bowie’s glam albums weren’t with him, and Buddha of Suburbia which I also consider a high point of Bowie’s post-Let’s Dance career was almost entirely Bowie. But Heathen does have a magic to it. This album gives me a lot of the same feelings that Blackstar does, because he’s overly concerned about death. There’s a really heavy doom and gloom vibe that grows on you, like a post-world decay where Bowie is the sole witness before even he blinks out of existence.

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Sunday blinks into existence. Its stuttering guitar line acts like a radio signal transmitted through space, Bowie singing like the last astronaut. It’s haunting with the synth building over a chanting vocal. It’s not menacing, just neutral, and when the signal should cut off, it’s restarted over and over again, like Bowie has one last thing to add, and finally Bowie escalates “everything has chaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAANGED” over a ferocious drum fill. Even Slip Away, having played up the feeling of then/now on Toy and given the radio signal treatment like Sunday, has a message of death. If Bowie was the last astronaut on Sunday, he’s trapped in the past as the future melts here. It’s an excellent song but not as powerful as on Toy where the chorus was teased out until the very end. Here, they introduce it more traditionally – and hey, it is a great chorus – earlier on, but it loses momentum when it goes back to the verses. Afraid, on the other hand, shines in its Heathen form. It has a newfound bite with the electric guitar more stable and in charge with the acoustic guitar offering commentary in between. Bowie’s singing and the instrumentation play up the nervous element a whole lot more in this form, and the violins that saw away at the chorus are like angels of death, seeming beautiful before they kill.

Even when the music doesn’t sound so apocalyptic, there’s still a unifying theme of death. Everyone Says “Hi” seems sweet, but it really plays out like a letter written by a child that doesn’t quite understand death yet to someone who’s died. Bowie sings in a higher voice that’s different from a lot of the songs on this album, and it suits the glistening instrumentation. The strings are almost a touch too saccharine, especially coupled with all the shimmering effects, but honestly I love it, and I think it puts a light sheen that goes well with the lyrics. I like that Bowie does sing it like a child and not like an adult, because a line like “you can always come back home, we can do all the old things” would be heartbreaking sung a different way, but it’s innocent here. He even throws in some fun “doo wop wop” background vox.

As the album title would suggest, the album is as concerned with religion as it is with death. One of the three singles, I’ve Been Waiting for You by Neil Young, is menacing in a way that seems like its God or the Devil making the call. I read that Dave Grohl plays guitar on here, and he’s just one of the guest guitarists on the album (another link to Scary Monsters). I Would Be Yr Slave casts Bowie into a character similar to Station to Station’s Word on a Wing, where he was also crying out for God to be there for him. He simultaneously dismisses God and begs for him. I love the way Bowie sings, so full of anguish and bitterness, and the synths and creepy guitar really underscore that. The bass is so out of character though, bouncing with so much fun that I thought Gail Ann Dorsey was playing (she’s not).

Right before the end of the album, the love/hate of God is in full force on A Better Future. It’s a lot more passive and cheerful than the gloomy reflection from before. The drum beat sounds like a perversion of Modern Love, another song with similar religious themes, and it’s not the last time Bowie will make a subtle but great callback to earlier songs. The lyrics and the singing don’t match up so much, because his “demand” sounds like it doesn’t care about the answer even when he’s threatening to stop wanting, needing and loving. I love when his big, deep vocals break in near the end.

Even as he scrapped the self-cover album Toy, I like how all three of the covers on this album are so different and show his diverse musical interests. He has such a shaky history with covers, but these are all choice. He covers Pixies who seem like a band Bowie would love, and he also covers I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship by a musician named Stardust Cowboy from the ’60s, and that’s what Bowie sounds like on a song that couldn’t have been more perfectly chosen. He sounds like he’s Ziggy again but zooming through space like a Douglas Adams character. It sounds like revival of the Earthling sound, and I like how he implemented it here with the strings and the halting but sexy vocal delivery. The original song by Stardust Cowboy is super weird and doesn’t sound at all like Bowie’s cover. The covers don’t all fit into the narrative of the album, and to be honest I’m making up this narrative just through common themes, but they’re all great.

Even the biggest song doesn’t really fit with the themes I mentioned earlier. Slow Burn is almost mythic. I’m a noted critic of anthems, but Bowie nails them. Slow Burn fits into the leagues of Life On Mars? and “Heroes”. It seems like it would just be a mid tempo jam, but it all the elements work together to make the song as big as its initial aspirations. Pete Townshend plays the lead guitar as wildly as Robert Fripp did on “Heroes”, and Bowie sounds totally otherworldly in the chorus. The sax interjects at times, and it’s such a perfect combination all around. The lyrics are great all around on this song and the album as a whole, but one I particularly love comes from here, where he sings, “who are we, so small in times such as these”. Apparently Bowie feels like he was predicting 9/11 on this song and the closer, and it’s pretty scary how well the songs could reflect that.

On my three favorite Bowie albums, there’s a feeling of movement. On Low, Bowie is physically moving from Los Angeles to Berlin. Blackstar doesn’t need an explanation. Heathen isn’t as clear, but it’s a move to the style that would inform his final three albums, a return to working with Tony Visconti, and because this album is so concerned with the dying, it creates an immediate link with Blackstar for me. A song like 5:15 is both lyrically and musically in a waiting area. The drums on here are great, like they are on a lot of the songs on the album. I love the way they intrude suddenly throughout the album, and it’s no different here.

There have been a lot of songs throughout this listen-through that have made me cry but none harder than Heathen (The Rays). It has a finality to it similar to I Can’t Give Everything Away, and it breaks me up. Bowie sounds despondent while the guitars and drums around him march ever onward to the end. Finally, he’s breaking down and I always do at the same time. I don’t want to constantly talk about Blackstar, but it’s so hard not to at this point when this song is so overtly about a dying star, and when listening to Blackstar is the embodiment of the feeling of this song, of looking at the sunset and knowing that it’s already set and you’re just seeing an after effect. It’s chilling, and it makes both albums two of emotional, wonderful and haunting listens.

Toy

Why do bands do cover songs? For the most part, Bowie has a tradition of having at least one cover song on his albums. It was a way for him to make a little tribute. I think a better question isn’t why, but how to make a good cover song? Despite the great song selection, I didn’t like Pin Ups. I don’t think that’s how you make a good cover. Bowie’s covers are a little contentious. They aren’t the high point of his albums, and in some cases they’re abysmal. But some are really great, and he makes them his own. On Bowie’s never released self-cover album, Toy, he doesn’t need to make them his own, because they’re already his songs. I love that he didn’t try to re-make the hits. Instead, he wanted to do songs of his that weren’t well-known, mostly songs from before he was David Bowie, back when he was still singing as Davy Jones.

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Toy was never released. Instead, his label asked him to scrap it and make new songs for them, and I read a theory that Bowie was so hurt, having never had an album flat-out rejected, that he never released it. I also read that there were problems with the rights to the songs. This was in 2000. In the end, the demo version of the album somehow leaked in 2011, and it’s still contentious. I read some negative reviews of it, some thankful that it wasn’t released back then, and I agree with half of that. I think hearing it in 2011 was perfect. In fact, it may have been a catalyst for Bowie to start recording again, if it weren’t intentional. Honestly, Heathen was the best thing that could have followed ‘hours…’.

At the turn of the century, Bowie had turned his eye to the past. He released the good-intentions-but-bad-execution ‘hours…’, and he played Can’t Help Thinking About Me (his best early song as far as I’m concerned) again live, so recreating his past seemed so interesting at the time, and I think it reenergized him. He tried to write some new songs in the way he might have written them back then for this album as well, and two of those are some of his absolute best songs.

Mostly his covers are slowed down and sung gravely, almost emotionlessly. To be honest, I like a lot of these re-imaginings better than the originals, because Bowie sounded amazing at this period. I don’t know what happened to make him and his band sound so great here, because he wasn’t working with Tony Visconti yet. His singing is mostly a fantastic baritone, I mean, this is proto-Heathen singing, and it’s absolutely my thing. I know these are demos, but the production on them is perfect for the sound of the album. It’s very retro, totally unlike what ‘hours…’ sounded like. The guitars have a great tone, the drumming is simple but lovely, and it sounds so warm, like being beside a warm fire in winter. It just goes to show how great of a songwriter Bowie was back then. Listen to the originals, and they sound like standard ‘60s songs in the vein of The Beatles, The Who, The Monkees; but listen to the versions on Toy and it’s suddenly clear how good these were.

At Bowie’s age, these young man’s songs take on a whole new meaning. Baby Loves That Way is the sound of a man who’s resigned to being a hapless loser. It takes on a country tone with the violin and the guitar playing playing at a slower pace. Songs like I Dig Everything and The London Boys are about being young, and they’re so much better at capturing the air of reflection and nostalgia than anything on ‘hours…’ could. The former comes off as a little bit sarcastic, the way he bites off “everything is fine, I dig everything”. Then the latter is an absolutely perfect closer for this album, and another notch on the ’songs that have made me teary eyed so far’ list.

The gem of these old tracks is inarguably Conversation Piece though, having been released as a single with The Prettiest Star around the time of Space Oddity, but it didn’t do well, and it doesn’t make sense to exclude it from the album, because it would have been the best song on the album if it had been. It had a lovely country feel too it and the feel of an old man singing in the voice of a young man then. On the Toy version, Bowie is an old man and he sounds like he’s bearing the weight of the world on his back, far more world-weary than he did on the original. It’s honestly magical.

There are three new compositions among these re-makes. The title track is a lovely cascade of piano and stuttering guitar while Bowie sings incomprehensibly except for “yr turn to drive”, and it sounds like someone giving up in peace and contentment, especially as the song is carried to its end by a muted trumpet solo. It wasn’t re-recorded for Heathen like Afraid and Uncle Floyd were though, both of which kick the album off. Afraid sounds very much like a demo here, but it’s a killer song, so it rules in whatever form it’s in. It’s an urgent take on what ‘hours…’ tried to do, and it’s so much richer and more successful. Gail Ann Dorsey kills it on bass, too.

The opener, Uncle Floyd, is where the real magic begins. It is of course the original version of Slip Away from Heathen, and it thrives more in this form than on the version that was done on Heathen. It starts with a minute of a character on the Uncle Floyd show asking what everyone would be doing if there had been no show while people whoop and holler in the background. It’s an interesting way to start this album, as if Bowie were asking, what if there had been no David Bowie right before he plays all the songs from before he was. I think this is what makes Toy such a success. It’s not a nostalgia sell-out, and Uncle Floyd tells you that right off. Bowie sounds remorseful as everything slips away, and he holds out on the chorus for FOUR WHOLE MINUTES. When he finally drops it, it’s like a bomb, and it shatters everything.

‘hours…’

Is this Bowie’s most forgettable album? I think it unquestionably is. Even Pin Ups and Never Let Me Down are less forgettable (for different reasons), but ‘hours…’ plays like a live acoustic concert more than a proper new David Bowie album.

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I’ve listened to this album a few different ways, and so my opinion on it has changed a bit. First, I listened to it on my computer speakers after I finished writing about Earthling, and I limped to the end of it. Then, I listened to it taking the subway the day before yesterday, and I made it two songs in before I switched to listening to Brian Eno’s Another Green World. Then I listened to it yesterday a little and started warming to it, then again last night and thought, “wait, am I actually liking this?” and now I’m listening to it again and finding it easier to discover what I like about it. To be honest, it was the same situation with Never Let Me Down.

‘hours…’ finds Bowie looking to his past similar to Buddha of Suburbia did, but here he looks a little further, landing his sights on Hunky Dory. Here, he adopts a more confessional singer-songwriter role, dons his long blond Hunky Dory hair, and he plays takes a more intimate and reflective tone in his music. I read that after Earthling, his guitarist and songwriting collaborator Reeves Gabrels wanted to make a sequel to Earthling similar to how Bowie had made Aladdin Sane as like a sequel to Ziggy Stardust, but Bowie’s whims were more important than following a narrative. It was the turn of the century, and Bowie was mellowing out as his age caught up with him.

Sonically, this mirrors Beck’s musical narrative. This might be just me looking back and searching for similarities, but Beck had just done his Odelay to Mutations change, and just a few months after Bowie’s ‘hours…’, he would release Midnite Vultures which takes big inspiration (and a hook) from David Bowie. I can’t find if they ever met, but Beck obviously admired him, and Bowie’s The Next Day look is also really similar to Beck’s Morning Phase look. But that’s all speculation!

Buddha of Suburbia showed Bowie’s interest in the past and how to reformat it for the future, and he makes good on the promise of that record with ‘hours…’, except it’s done in completely the wrong way. ‘hours…’ is an album fixed firmly in the present looking back, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it comes off as too safe and not all that entertaining for me. This was the end of the millennium, so it’s understandable that Bowie would be feeling reflective, so in a way it’s a necessary album, but Bowie was always at his best when he was facing the future. In a way, he was still doing that, but more in marketing than in sound. He was writing these songs for a video game and one of the songs had a lyric contest and a live webcast, but to be honest, that’s not very interesting.

The album starts off on a semi-weak note. Thursday’s Child sets the tone for the album, and while the chorus is pretty cheesy, the combination of hip-hop beats, female background singers, and the synths are pretty if a little underwhelming. The next run of songs from Something’s in the Air through Seven are a whole lot stronger, lyrically and sonically. I like the hesitant guitar parts of Something’s in the Air and Bowie’s forced vocals. The chord change for the chorus is really unexpected, and I love how Bowie holds the words so long and in such a tortured voice. Survive also has a great if predictable chord change in the chorus, and it’s the most Hunky Dory-ish song on the album. I like the subtle but clanky percussion (maybe it’s an electronic loop actual) the most. It’s really quiet, but it sounds so good. If I’m Dreaming My Life predicts Heathen’s sound really well, though it doesn’t compare to any song on that album. It’s a pained seven minutes lament, and I like the deep vocals Bowie does and the heavier feel of it. The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell, an Iggy Pop reference, tries to recreate that heaviness, but it doesn’t work at all and comes off thin and fake; but If I’m Dreaming My Life owns that sound pretty well.

I read that Bowie wanted the songs to sound like something anyone could play, so he wanted to avoid the ways of making Earthling and 1. Outside, focusing on simple songwriting that would let him croon about the past without being too distracted. I think Seven captures that feel the best. It’s simple but lovely, and if there’s any song that best represents what Bowie wanted to make with this album, it’s this one. The slidey guitar is also really lovely, evoking the lyrical content really well of feeling left behind.

The album middles after that, but it ends with a pretty decent final three songs. The New Angels of Promise takes a little of the heaviness and translates it into an otherworldliness, aided by an exotic riff on flute and Bowie doing some weird vocals wailing “we despair” as the angels descend. It’s very much linked to the world of Ziggy Stardust and the Diamond Dogs lyrically. It segues well into Brilliant Adventure, an oriental instrumental calling back to the likes of Moss Garden. It’s nice, but it definitely lacks the intrigue that Moss Garden had and kinda comes off as lazy. The Dreamers has a similar problem, sounding more like someone trying to impersonate Bowie, and while it’s still one of the more interesting songs on the album, it’s still not great. The opening is interesting with the percussion and the booming synth brass, but the song lacks an energy that it feels like it should have. It, like a lot of songs on the album, have painfully obvious lyrics that are more self-parody than sincerity.

I think Never Let Me Down and ‘hours…’ prove that even a musical genius needs to take a step back after a bit of non-stop creation to recuperate. They’re similar in that they’re decent. Honestly, neither of them are really unlistenable, but they’re lacking something, an energy, a sincerity. At least in the case of ‘hours…’ it’s in preparation for some really great and inspired takes on nostalgia-bating.

Earthling

I love that Bowie never tried to distance himself from his otherworldliness. Even when he shed his part of his mythic and untouchable status, he was never shy about being an alien. Because who would call themselves an earthling except an extra terrestrial? That’s how Bowie looks on the cover standing backwards in his British flag jacket. That’s an alien pretending to fit in (his incredibly exaggerated British accent all over this album, for example, or all the interesting effects he does on his vocals).

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You can never say that Bowie gave up, and you can compare his ’90s career to his fertile ’70s as much as you want, but you can’t say that he was at a lack of ideas. After refreshing himself with Tin Machine, he experimented with house music on Black Tie White Noise, played around with drum machines and vocal effects on Buddha of Suburbia, made the industrial music concept album Outside, and now this wild, risky and aggressive drum and bass album. This run of albums doesn’t quite compare to his legacy, but at this point, he didn’t care the way he did in the ’80s. This is also the last of those experimental albums (you could argue that Blackstar is a fusion of this experimental phase and his nostalgia appropriation later), and I think he knew exactly what he was doing when he made it and titled it Earthling. It represented him so much at this time, more than just his legacy as an alien. He was an old man masquerading as a young man. Where normal old musicians would play the hits, stuck in the rut of their past glory, making boring retreads, Bowie fought against that. He was determined to stay artistically relevant, I think. But where in the ’70s, he caught onto trends before they happened, appropriating and defining them, abandoning them before they got stale; now, he was playing catch-up, following trends. He was great, but it doesn’t have the same freshness as it did in the ’70s. That isn’t to say that this is a bad album, because it’s good, although I think that most of his albums are at minimum ‘just good’, to be fair.

I love the aggressiveness, to be honest. There’s a crunch that he was getting back on Outside but finally amped up to full blast on this album, and the way they made it is actually really interesting, making their own samples by speeding up and looping themselves, and sending the guitar to a keyboard in ways that I don’t understand at all. It translates to a very synthetic sound, saxophone that sounds like guitar, and it gives the album a bite that Bowie hadn’t harnessed as well since Scary Monsters’ frenetic vocals and guitar. I love the sound of the guitar on this album, almost like a person screaming at times, but the bass is also to love. When was the last time he had such a nimble bassist? This is the first time collaborating with Gail Ann Dorsey on bass, and she rules. Her bass has a nice sound, and honestly she’s just a really technically proficient bassist who can make some really cool bass fills (that one bit on Little Wonder about 3 and a half minutes in is delightful). She’s the star of this album, as far as I’m concerned. Another highlight of the album, Seven Years in Tibet, has her powering the song until the sudden break of noise and guitar. I love the quiet/loud dynamic here, because in the midst of all the commotion, Bowie is screaming, “I praise to you, nothing ever goes away,” and it’s absolutely cacophonous as it drowns him out. Mike Garson has a great keyboard organ bit going on at this part, almost like a funeral dirge.

All of the songs on this album are really long, and they play out like jams. They were supposed to capture the energy of his band at the time, which he was really proud of, but instead of making a live album to show them off, they made this album but like taking a photo of this time period, they went and photoshopped it to death until it was a totally new beast. Some of the songs are a little too long, but they are all really good. Telling Lies features a great plucked violin sample loop that gets scared away by the musical wilderness around it. The semi-title track closer, Law (Earthlings on Fire), is a Black Tie White Noise track on steroids, and it’s so much fun, creating mental images of a deranged alien zapping humans with its ray gun à la Mars Attacks!

The BIG SONG on the album is I’m Afraid of Americans, probably the most memorable one, and probably also the best. Bowie’s delivery is great, and it’s so robotic with beeps and boops and Bowie’s wonderfully stuttering “uh-uh-uh uh-uh uh uh uh uh”. It attacks you with its hooks, and while this album might seem to have aged poorly to some, I’m Afraid of Americans is hardly affected, notably in the lyrics which are even more relevant now than ever before (the video could have been made yesterday, and gosh what a great video).

But this is an old man’s album in a young man’s clothes, because lyrically Bowie sounds ready to start retrofitting his old music. There are hints of that in the music, too. Looking for Satellites is like a Heathen track changed to fit this album’s manic percussion, and you can hear it under all the noise especially during the bridge, “Where do we look to now? There’s nothing in our eyes”. The chorus itself says as much. The lyrics are really reflective on Earthling, like on Dead Man Walking where he’s singing “and I’m gone… thru a crack in the past”, or his “what are you doing to yrself?” comments on The Last Thing You Should Do. On Outside, he sang that it was “now, not tomorrow, yesterday”, but Earthling finds the past and the future bleeding into the now, and I think now he was finally preparing himself to let go.

1. Outside

There’s some tough competition for what I would call Bowie’s most ambitious album, but 1. Outside gives a really convincing argument for itself. Bowie had always wanted to be more than just a musician. Even since the ’60s, he had expressed his desire to write plays, act, direct, and he did do a lot of that. 1. Outside was going to be a play, but he couldn’t figure out how it could be done at the time. Despite that, this is such an ambitious project, and the way it was created, and what it tries to be are all really compelling and fascinating. It started when Bowie reconnected with Brian Eno, talking about making music together again. They visited a psychiatric hospital where the patients famously do “outsider art”, or art that has no connections whatsoever to the mainstream art world. This inspired them to record something that ended up just being hours of dialogue, or in other words, something he could not publish. I’m really interested in listening to these Leon tapes, but I haven’t yet. I saw that they mysteriously and coincidentally “leaked” on the day Blackstar came out, too. At this time, Bowie also kept a diary of a fictional detective that spanned his life over fifteen years.

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All of this combined into them writing all of these songs about a story that’s even harder to wrap your head completely around. Bowie’s character, Detective Nathan Adler, is investigating the murder of a girl in a world where “murder and mutilation of bodies” was a new art craze. There’s Leon Blank, the accused murderer; Baby Grace, the victim; and a lot of different people interviewed or giving their own accounts. It’s hard to keep track of, but it’s certainly interesting considering all of these characters are, according to Bowie, pieces of himself. So it’s like a murder mystery and an intimate look at Bowie himself. The story reminds me of two things, Twin Peaks for the main narrative of Adler investigating the death of Baby Grace, and Bladerunner for the futuristic part of it and the music, and I can’t help but imagine Deckard when I think of the main character.

It’s not just interesting for its concept though! There are also a lot of great songs! I don’t know if I’m in the minority or not, but the length doesn’t bother me at all, nor do the segues. In fact, for the past three hours I’ve been reading about this album. It’s fascinating, and some may find it bloated or the sequencing strange, but I’m a fan, to be honest. There’s a lot to appreciate about Bowie’s backing band on the album. Mike Garson is everywhere, and he’s such a fun pianist. He takes a front seat on A Small Plot of Land, a very jazzy song that’s like a fast-paced sequel to South Horizon. It doesn’t have the chance to pause for breath, and Mike Garson tinkles on some nervous notes while Bowie belts out some off-putting lyrics and delivery; I love how he holds the first part of the word, it’s so creepy. I remember a quote that Sara Quinn said about The Con having its weirdest songs at the beginning, about how you can’t lose your listener in the first half, so you can still be weird without worrying about them turning it off. That seems to absolutely be the case here, and it’s always made this song so striking to me. It’s almost a bad representation of the album, because there are a lot of great hooks and a lot of catchy songs on this album, but I always think of it as so dark and impenetrable because of the choice to have a song like this so early in the running. By the end of the song, it devolves into lots of little voices vying to be heard. This is a dark and weird album, but this was a bold and smart movie. There are a couple of other songs like it where Garson takes the lead, but this is the oddest. The Motel is also really nice, a lot more subdued and with a great hip-hop beat.

Since Tim Machine, Reeves Gabrels had been Bowie’s go-to guitar guy, and I like how Bowie uses him so much more than how he played in their band. Bowie is a really inventive songwriter, but as I’ve mentioned before, one of his fortes is absolutely how he can take talented people and let them loose and reign in their creations in interesting ways, and I think that Gabrels is really talented when manipulated by Bowie, or at least allowed to play over Bowie’s own music. His riff on Heart’s Filthy Lesson is great, and it highlights another aspect that I love so much on this album. There are a lot of repeated patterns, meaning that one thing happens in the song and it’s driven into the ground. It’s not just this song but also the isolated guitar on Hallo Spaceboy. I’ve been so curious about the story of Outside, but that’s a song that seems to be more of an update on Ziggy, and it reminds me most of that spacesuit in the Blackstar video with the skeleton inside.

Of all the people playing with Bowie, I’m most pleased to hear Carlos Alomar back on rhythm! For almost the last time, sadly. His last great send-off is I Have Not Been to Oxford Town. It’s a standout on the album, and Alomar is a huge reason for that. His funky guitar riff is so great to hear again, and it’s so good it’s duplicated throughout the song until he has like three playing at the same time. It’s such a jaunty and bright song. The bass is cool and predates The Flaming Lips’ bass style on Yoshimi (including the hip-hop beat!). I love the spoken word on here too, it reminds me a lot of David Byrne. They function as kind of asides in the song, like the music opens up a space for him to look at the audience and knowingly tell them something about the scene. The main lyrics became like a mantra repeated and repeated like a duet with Alomar’s repeated rhythm.

I know that there were a lot of influences on this album, like Nine Inch Nails which I have yet to really listen to outside of a few cool songs I’ve heard, but there’s one current musician who some of the songs on here remind me so much of. Matthew Dear is an electronic musician, and he has a deep voice similar to Bowie’s, and while that plays a part, there’s also his music which is murky and reliant on loops of bass and drums, and tracks like No Control remind me so much of that. They’re obviously not the same, but I wonder if Matthew Dear was a fan of Outside, because my guess is yes. Related to that murky atmosphere, I really love what’s going on in Wishful Beginnings. It’s so creepy, and it contributes so much to the atmosphere of the album and the weird dystopian story. I’m not all that familiar with Scott Walker, but of what little I’ve heard of him, he seems to be a huge influence on this album and songs like Wishful Beginnings. I love that eerie quality, atmosphere over catchiness.

I mentioned that I really enjoy the segues and trying to piece together the story. If you’re trying to get into this album, I really suggest you either listen in bed or take a long walk at night. I was listening to this in the morning the other day, and it’s incomparable to sitting here in the dark. My favorite segue is Algeria Touchshriek, about a lonely man. I love the way he says, “he’s a broken man… I am also.. a broken man”. It gives me chills. The album narrative isn’t very clear, but the segues give a little glimpse into a small story, like that or Ramona A. Stone who is like evil Bowie. She’s probably the one who killed Baby Grace, not Leon. Instead of a proper ending (something I’ve become less and less concerned about in the media I consume), it ends with Strangers When We Meet, a song that was so good he couldn’t hide it on Buddha of Suburbia. It doesn’t really fit on this album at all, but it’s still top notch here in its more polished form.

There are so many good songs on this album to talk about, and already I feel like I’m not doing this album nearly enough justice it deserves. It’s a daunting album for sure, but if you give it a chance, it will surprise and impress you.

The Buddha of Suburbia

This album has a weird reputation. Most people apparently don’t count it as one of his albums for some reason. Bowie did a song for this serial, and while he was at it he did eight other songs that weren’t in the drama. So it’s classified as a soundtrack, only got one review apparently, and it’s thought of as a lost album. I don’t know if people still think that way, but to make it even stranger, in 2003 Bowie called it his best album. It seems like a really Bowie thing to do to tell people your favorite album you’ve ever made is the one that no one knows about, and it’s kind of hilarious. Two of the review sites I read (CoS and Stereogum) trash talked it and ranked it at the very bottom. That is just wild, because this is one of his most eclectic albums up to this point. He has a discography that’s all over the place, but most of his albums keep a unifying sound throughout, and even if they’re influenced by a lot of different things, you can’t say that his albums are a grab bag of genres. Buddha of Suburbia is kind of that, Bowie expressing a lot of his different interests while at the same time pulling at nostalgia. In fact, this is the first time that Bowie has seemed comfortably himself (Pitchfork said that Diamond Dogs was the most “Bowie” album in a way because he played it all almost by himself, but look at the credits on this, and it’s even more of Bowie doing everything with help from his latest favorite collaborator Erdal Kizilcay).

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Since the 1980s, he was wanting to outrun and outdistance himself. Let’s Dance’s popularity proved to be too enticing, so he made Tonight. Tonight was so poorly-received, he made Never Let Me Down as his “I’m back” album. Never Let Me Down was even more of a critical failure, so he tried to be anything but himself because he had such a bad reputation. Black Tie White Noise was deliberately “different”. But on this album, he seems comfortable to experiment, make callbacks to his past work, and it has a really similar feel to The Next Day or Blackstar. In fact, there’s a huge jazz influence on this album just like Blackstar does. Looking at the album art gives you the same feeling listening to it does.

There’s so much experimentation on this album. You don’t have to go very far to hear it. After the title track, you’re immediately greeted by another of Bowie’s new friends, the drum machine, and Bowie singing through some watery vocal effects that are sped up and down as the song goes along. It’s the clearest point of reference for the segues on 1. Outside. Midway through the end of the song, there are pieces of jazz thrown in with organ, trumpets and sax playing around. It’s a great lead-in to South Horizon which is the jazziest and most experimental song. It sounds like essentially what Bowie probably does on his own before making it more digestible for an album, like an unfiltered look at Bowie playing around. It starts with a solid jazz rhythm and Mike Garson doing his thing over it, but the rhythm is broken up suddenly by a sample loop and a drum machine, like a trap thrown out to trip up Mike Garson who boldly keeps going. It’s almost like a fight. I like how Garson plays here, because it’s obviously him, and the direct connection to this is Aladdin Sane’s title track, but it’s held back a lot more than his solo on that song. There, the beauty was in how ferocious he got. Here, there’s more power in the notes he doesn’t play, and while it’s still wild, it’s tempered, and I think it works really well. At one point he just jams down some chords really hard as the drum beat seems to get louder.

It’s not the last time we hear Garson who comes back on Bleed Like a Craze, Dad. His presence is much smaller, relegated to playing some twinkling high notes here and there. The real hero of this song is the bass. Now we’re getting into my kind of territory, because Bowie’s sampling himself like he did (will do, whatever) later. It’s a killer baseline, and it’s the same one from Sister Midnight (and by default, Red Money). That’s what points out Bowie’s comfort on this album. Sure, he called back Changes on Black Tie White Noise, but this is the latter day Bowie that I love, appropriating himself and reworking his past to make new music. It’s wonderful.

I can’t remember, and I’m too lazy to double check, but if I argued that Black Tie White Noise was the start of latter day Bowie, I was wrong. That was the start of Bowie making a concerted effort to do something purposefully weird and different, like 1. Outside or Earthling (maybe I’m wrong, we’ll see when I get there!). Buddha of Suburbia is the first real old Bowie album, because he’s not doing something different for the sake of being different. He’s recycling himself like I mentioned before, and that’s what he did on Heathen, The Next Day, and Blackstar. Dead Against It is a song I’d lump as similar to those. It has a retro feel to it, both in the lyrics and the songwriting, and it sounds like an old person reflecting on their past in a way. I think this sense is what really powered Bowie at the end of his career, that timeless ability that is felt here.

He does it again on Untitled 1, singing incomprehensibly in the background in his Marc Bolan impression from Black Country Rock, but singing lyrics over that that run over each other until one stands out from the others, “it’s clear that some things never take”. It’s a delivery and feel that reminds me a lot of “I can’t give everything”. At the same time, while I’ve been listening to this, I’ve been wondering what exactly Erdal Kizilcay did. I think he was important in forming the rhythms on this album. My impression is that he and Bowie sat down like Bowie and Eno had once done, and they played around with sound (and vision [sorry]). This song is swarming with sounds. All of the songs are so textured, but this song has a lot going on both in the textures and the melodies, which makes the title especially funny, because you would expect one of the instrumentals to be untitled. Instead, the instrumentals get mysterious titles like The Mysteries and Ian Fish, UK Heir. Those are the two big ambient instrumentals on the album. I said before that Bowie proved that Eno didn’t write the ambient songs on Low and “Heroes”, because he did these without Eno, and they’re just as good as what they had done together fifteen years prior to this.

The Mysteries’ clear predecessor is Moss Garden. It’s seven minutes of pure feeling, even more heady than Moss Garden was, with piano and reversed acoustic guitar playing a few disconnected notes and portions of melodies here and there. I never saw the TV series Buddha of Suburbia, so I can’t comment on what this might represent in the way that I could on the Low and “Heroes” instrumentals, but I just like to close my eyes and soak in the mysteries. Ian Fish, UK Heir closes out the album, and its as formless as you can imagine, playing with static even as an instrument, and I think it takes what he and Eno had done before one step further (although obviously Eno has a richer career in ambient music, I mean one step further for Bowie), the melodies that do come through are lost in the quiet pulsing of the synths and the static. The guitar starts out trying to play the title track’s melody super low-key, but that’s abandoned as it’s eaten by the atmosphere. I love the sense of decay on this, like a distant future where people are dead and all that’s left is our homes and cities, but they’re being slowly retaken by nature.

The Buddha of Suburbia isn’t all moody instrumentals and freeform jazz/drum machine fusion though. The two most overtly typical pop songs are the title track and Strangers When We Meet. The title track is the only one that was used in the TV serial, and it’s a tour of nostalgia by the end, playing Space Oddity’s funky guitar riff before diving right into All the Madmen’s chorus. It doesn’t really fit on the album, but it’s a gem that doesn’t get nearly as much credit as it should. It’s just so confident and solid, with Bowie singing of nostalgic yearning and some of his absolute top lyrics. It feels even more poignant now, and listening to it now is making me cry so hard. Especially the way he holds the “when” almost uncertain if there will be another when and at the end as he hysterically declares himself “so thankful” and “head heel over”. Fuck.

Black Tie White Noise

What a comeback! Even having listened to Tin Machine, it finally feels like we’re back to David Bowie. I don’t think it’s far off to call this a big comeback album, because he needed some direction following Never Let Me Down, and this is the culmination of his effort to find his way again. This is almost as drastic a change as Young Americans was after Diamond Dogs. Here, he ditched the ’80s pomp and hard rock, turning toward electronic and house music, and it sounds really cool. When you divide his album periods up, I think this is the clear beginning of “old Bowie”, because a lot of his techniques are on this album. I said that Tin Machine would be influential on his later work, but it was still him caught in a kind of limbo. On Black Tie White Noi-oi-oise though, he’s found the groove that will power him through the next two decades. And plus, this was the start of a new time in his life, having just married Iman Abdulmajid who he was with for the rest of his life. This life event was a creative inspiration, and you can hear that on the album. In fact, two of the songs are ones he wrote for his wedding! I’d love to hear the demos of them.

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The biggest thing that you hear when you listen to the album are the dance beats. They’re so in your face, and I don’t think comparing this album to Young Americans is all that wrong when both albums appropriated so fully one style. It’s full-on on this album, and to be honest I really enjoy it. It’s really engaging and energetic, more than both Tin Machine albums were and way more than Tonight and Never Let Me Down. It gives the album an invigorating feel, like Bowie’s emerging from the fountain of youth, and in a way he was. I’m not all that familiar with house music, so I can’t say if this is derivative or if the beats aren’t well done, but for these shallow ears its cool. It’s a whole new unexplored element, so even a typical song structure feels changed – and these songs are really good! The obvious standout is Jump They Say, a track about his brother’s death that’s frustrated and stone cold, and for good reason. His brother’s shadow lingers on the album because, despite having committed suicide in 1985, he and Bowie had a really important relationship, having mentored Bowie in a lot of ways. I Feel Free, an actually pretty decent cover considering Bowie’s track record for the past few albums, was also related to his brother via a really strong memory they had made together with the song. I like how impassionately Bowie sings. It reminds me of the way he was singing back during Low when he was emotionless. I really like the propulsion of the song and the wild twisting turns it takes with the trumpet.

That’s not the only callback on this album though. Nite Flights is a cover (of which there are like three on this album, including the aforementioned I Feel Free) of Scott Walker. The book on Low I read talked a lot about Bowie’s influences and idols, and Scott Walker was one of those. I’m actually not all that familiar with Scott Walker, but I want to listen to more from him, since this isn’t the first or last time Bowie and Walker were mentioned in the same sentence.

Speaking of callbacks, there’s also a little ch-ch-ch-changes shoutout in You’ve Been Around that’s really cute!

I also really enjoy the instrumental songs on the album. Two of them were the wedding songs, the second of which (Pallas Athena) sounds so ominous, with strings acting out that portentous music heard in lots of movie trailers like Lord of the Rings. There’s also a bizarre but super enjoyable vocal sample shouting GOD… IS ON TOP OF IT. How this was wedding material beats me, but it’s super enjoyable in any case. But the opener and closer (another callback, this time to Scary Monsters?) have a great sense of rhythm and funk. I adore the wild saxophone (sounds like Secret Life of Arabia or an instrumental on “Heroes” or something??) and the general feel of it.

Speaking of funky! Carlos Alomar… has left, but Nile Rodgers is back! I loved Alomar’s guitar work with Bowie, but he was impossible to find on Bowie’s ’80s albums, so when I first heard the funky guitar on You’ve Been Around, I immediately went searching for his name in the personnel. He’s not on here, but I’m glad to hear that the funk has returned to Bowie after being absent for so long There are tons of guests on this album. Reeves Gabrels from Tin Machine plays (and co-wrote) You’ve Been Around, and there’s a funny anecdote where Bowie said he was so happy to do that song on his album, because he could call all the shots, so he mixed Reeves Gabrels’ guitar way to the back and it made him so mad, lirl. Mike Garson plays piano on a song, and he would come back to play again on Outside, so it’s cool to hear him and Bowie back together. Then there’s also one huge cameo in Mick Ronson playing on I Feel Free! I can’t tell so much that it’s him, to be honest, and it’s really sad, because he and Bowie had been estranged for so long, and he died of cancer (  ) the same year.

I have one absolute favorite from the album, and it’s Miracle Goodnight. It has such a cool hook, Bowie singing like he’s constipated (I like it tho), lyrics full of self-doubt, and an absolutely incredible guitar solo. I want to listen to that guitar solo for 10 minutes straight, it’s so nice.

Black Tie White Noise was an important album. I think that it’s more of a stepping stone to better albums, but it’s really solid on its own. Like with Tin Machine, its influence will continue to be felt.