JEFFERY

“I feel like there’s no such thing as gender.”

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Before I ever listened to Young Thug, I admired him. It’s hard not to love him, whether he’s wearing a dress or making comments about equality and being whoever you are. He’s super lovable, and now I’ve had Jeffery on repeat for a bit and love him even more.

Even if you don’t know the lyrics, you love this for the hooks and the beats, and at a very slim 42 minutes, it is smooth and really easy to listen to. The beats aren’t genre-changing, but they’re wonderful for their subtlety, because there isn’t anything that’s in your face or show-stealing. They’re enablers, keeping the mood and helping the album flow from song to song, which is does spectacularly. The songs melt together, but they aren’t boring or forgettable, because Young Thug keeps it spicy with his huge presence.

He knows his strengths, and this is a supremely confident album. Maybe they’re all confident, but this is the first one I’m listening to. He spits and rhymes like an absolute master, and more than that, his delivery is so unique from song to song. He raps sweetly, wildly, in gasps, whatever fits the tone of the song. Swizz Beats is complimented by a lovely “la la la” and Guwop by a chipper “ya did ya did” while on Harambe he mimics Louis Armstrong and RiRi has him turning “work” and “earn it” into dog-like yips of pain. His voice isn’t just a method of delivering his lyrics but an instrument itself, contorting and flexible.

Even though the songs are all named after his idols and influences, none of the songs are really about them. I first became interested in him, because of Kanye West and Harambe, expecting them to be funny meme-songs, but what I got instead were thoughtful deconstructions of masculinity, love, and life. His lyrics are hard to decipher, and I am not the person to do that anyway, but unpacking them isn’t what needs to be done, because they’re as thoughtful because of their delivery and complexity of the hooks as they are the actual lyrics. On Kanye West, he sounds fragile and opened up, one of the hardest things you would expect someone called Young Thug to do, because here he’s not Young Thug. He’s not a woman, he’s not a man, he’s something you will never understand. He’s Jeffery.

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Pinkerton

I’m an unapologetic Weezer fan. I love everything they’ve done from Blue to Maladroit to Raditude to their new self-titled album, but Pinkerton is their inarguable masterpiece.

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Pinkerton is equal parts creepy, sad, and cute; no matter what he spits, it’s most of all raw, and that’s what I’ve found that I love in my favorite lyricists. Inspired by the Madame Butterfly opera, Rivers Cuomo wrote his most deepest, darkest, most earnest, most despicable lyrics, and he’s never topped it in sincerity or rawness, and to be honest, they’ve never really tried, and that’s okay.

Just like Kevin Barnes adopting third-person personas following Cherry Peel, Rivers Cuomo has never opened his diary in his songs like he did here, and it’s easy to understand why – they album was slaughtered when it came out, and it was more or less disavowed by the band for a long time. Of course! If you scoop out your base emotions and everyone hates it, you’re going to distance yourself from that forever as well. It’s hard to imagine how they would have turned out had the album gotten the same kind of press then as it does now.

It’s a classic now for the same reasons that people didn’t like it in 1996 though. Everything about it is raw, from the lyrical content to the production (produced by Rivers Cuomo/Weezer themselves). It’s grimy from the first note, feedback everywhere, and it sounds musically like it does lyrically – it’s falling apart and tearing at the seams, while I’m not sure I’ve ever heard screams as sincere as Cuomo’s here, and just about every song ends with an insane gut-wrenching solo. But what’s funny  is that Cuomo’s quirks are as evident here as they have been on every album – his “shakin’ booty” and “holy cow” lyrics – but there’s a sincerity that really gets to you and makes you uncomfortable even as you’re chuckling at the old-fashionedness of some of his phrases.

There’s a lot of broken hearts on this album, and honestly some of the lyrics are so special on here, because they detail specific feelings in relationships and longing, the kind of details that Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran won’t ever write about, the dirty parts and hate (both self-hate and hate for those who’ve wronged you), like No Other One – kind of a subversion of their first self-titled’s No One Else – which is oozing self-pity, or Pink Triangle, which recounts a story of falling in love with a lesbian woman. The absolute best example of this (and best song by the band as far as I’m concerned) though is Across the Sea, which doubles as the most uncomfortable song as well. It starts cute, showing how you can make a difference in someone’s life even from so far away, until it veers into strange territory as Cuomo is wondering what this teenage Japanese girl is wearing to school and how she touches herself, before wrapping it up with the intensely adorable line, “I’ve got your letter, you’ve got my song”.

What I love about the narration though is how the opening mission statement, Tired of Sex, fails in the end. He begins the album wanting love, and in the end, he fails completely on Butterfly: “I’m sorry for what I did / I did what my body wanted to / I didn’t mean to do you harm”. It’s devastating even after all the filthy thoughts he spilled throughout the album, and the live harp version is incredible.

I’m glad that Pinkerton has gotten its extremely merited status as a modern classic, and I hope that Weezer will finally get the good criticism they deserve. As amazing an album as this is, their career doesn’t end here, and I hope that their post-Pinkerton albums will get the 20th anniversary treatment that this one gets. It’s a doozy of a listen, but it’s one of the most important albums in modern rock music, more than just incredibly catchy melodies (already making it a classic, in my opinion). It’s an open diary, all the beautiful and ugly feelings that usually never see the light, and it’s a national treasure.

Strangers When We Meet

“Steely resolve is falling from me
My poor soul, poor bruised passivity
All your regrets ran rough-shod over me
I’m so glad that we’re strangers when we meet”

So good, he couldn’t just put it on one album and be done with it. And yet, it’s still an obscure masterpiece. This song means a lot to me, not because of any special memory I have with it, but Bowie’s performance combined with the lyrics and melody move me an incredible amount. If it doesn’t move you yet, take a walk alone at night and put this on repeat. The bass will work its way into you, and Bowie will fight over your emotions. It’s something special, and it’s a huge shame that the song got lost.

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Love is the most common subject in songs for a reason. It’s the most complicated, frustrating, wonderful feeling that exists. Falling in love is powerful, and falling out of love is excruciating. When love is over, and you meet, it’s an odd feeling. You’re displaced, and it’s the closest feeling to purgatory that probably exists. You’re neither lovers nor friends, but you pretend to be one while you feel you’re the other, and neither works out. The person you once knew becomes a stranger, because you can’t share anymore, like a door has closed.

That’s the feeling of this song: displaced, not quite settled anywhere at all. Bowie sings in a hushed, conversational tone in the beginning and slowly grows in strength and power as the song goes on. At first, he’s numb, apathetic and grey, but later he makes a choice to make the best of an awful situation. There’s no use complaining, might as well just accept it.

In the beginning, he’s confused by how they got there, exactly how you feel at the end of a relationship. How did such a good thing turn so sour? But in the middle of the song, there’s a lot of anguish in his voice. I love how he sings, “cold tired fingers… tapping out your memories… halfway sadness… dazzled by the new…” Powerful stuff for me.

At the end of last year, I read this book called On Love by Alain de Botton that was really great. It chronicled a relationship from beginning to end, and Strangers When We Meet reminds me of that same thing. When he sings, “your embrace… was all that I feared…” it’s that moment when you know something’s wrong and you push it knowing that you will only get an answer you don’t want.

Then in the end, instead of ending it, he accepts it. “Steely resolve is falling from me” turns to “I’m so glad that we’re strangers when we meet!” Maybe they can fall in love again, start anew. It even comes off a little delusional, like he knows it can’t happen but he will go overboard trying to force it to happen, and it hurts like a knife in my chest when I hear it. I’ve cried almost every time I’ve listened to this song.

Both versions (on Buddha and Outside) each have their share of strengths, but I think that overall I would go for the version on Outside. They aren’t all that much different but for a few little changes that make some big impacts. Outside frankly has a better band, and Bowie’s singing is a lot more nuanced. I wanna also give props to Reeves Gabrels who I’ve been a little wishy-washy on in the past as a guitarist, but here he sounds like he’s trying to sound as much like Robert Fripp as possible. Those guitar sounds in the beginning of the song especially, but also throughout, are fantastic. Fripp could coax out some incredible textures, and Gabrels does just that here. And you know, the whole frame of the song is in that bass. It just wouldn’t be the same without it.

A New Career in a New Town

This is the most impactful Bowie song to me, and it’s not just because of his death and its use in I Can’t Give Everything Away. This has been one of my favorites for a while, and over the past seven months it’s just gotten more and more powerful. Bowie is known as a vocalist and an interesting pop songwriter, while his Berlin trilogy is heavily Eno-influenced and though it’s not typical of what makes Bowie such a popular musician, it’s part of what makes his legacy so grand. He dabbled, and A New Career in a New Town was a fork in the road of the two paths he would take.

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Low, and the Berlin trilogy in general, lives and breathes by its duality. There’s the duality of the Berlin Wall that inspired it, the American and European divide that drove him to it, and the actual divide in pop and instrumental on both Low and “Heroes”. A New Career in a New Town sits right in the middle of that divide, and it doesn’t shy away from every possible sentiment coming with that. It’s an actual combination of the two sounds, opening to the sounds of side two of the record with otherworldly synthesizers and a programmed drumbeat that clashes very quickly with the incredible drums and bass from side one.

The harmonica acts like the vocals, but why I love this song so much is in the way the harmonica speaks much louder than any lyrics possibly could have. I guess that’s why it was so fitting to use them on I Can’t Give Everything Away. See, the harmonica is a melancholy instrument – I mean that’s why they call sadness the blues right? – and it bridges the sadness of eastern Germany with the bright pop instrumentation that gives sound to the optimism of western Germany. It’s wistful for a future or a past that’s just out of reach. You can define it any way you want, but in the end it perfectly represents that feeling of something you can no longer have, leaving your past behind for an uncertain future. But it’s not just wallowing in that feeling, because the pop melody brings that joy of the unknown to the whole experience.

In the end, just like in 1977, Bowie was leaving behind a past that he knew well, a past that led him to a lot of fame and wonder, but also it was leading him out of pain – the pain of drugs and psychosis, the pain of cancer – and into a better place. I’ve cried so much listening to this song, and I think that’s what shows how powerful it is. It’s not a shallow manipulation either, this is an expertly crafted song that sincerely encapsulates what it means to be on the threshold of something new, and it’s wonderful, scary, and beautiful all at once.

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.