The time-honored trope regarding David Bowie is he’s the Chameleon of Rock & Roll. But that’s insufficient. It’s more accurate to describe him as Rock & Roll Innovator.
David Bowie never followed trends, he anticipated them. Glam, Proto-Punk, Art Rock, Blue-Eyed Soul, Bowie had a hand in popularizing all of these genres.
David Jones was born in Brixton London, England in 1947. Like many post-war teens his original inspiration came from Elvis Presley and Little Richard. He learned the Saxophone at an early age and began his music career at age 13.
He cycled through a series of bands: the King Bees, the Lower Third and Mannish Boys. (By 1966, Davy Jones was making a name for himself with the Monkees, so David Jones became David Bowie). Transforming from a Mod Dandy to an Anthony Newley-esque crooner, to an effete hippie with Pre-Raphaelite ringlets, Bowie released his eponymous debut in 1969. The album was an admirable first effort featuring the desolate single, “Space Oddity.”
Originally written to cash in on the Apollo 13 moon landing, the song became something more. Delving into the emotional journey of an astronaut named Major Tom.
In 1970, Bowie’s focus shifted yet again. Hooking up with producer Tony Visconti and guitarist Mick Ronson. The first two records the trio made together, The Man Who Sold The World, and Hunky Dory were a huge leap forward.
The former, a hard driving Rock record (which displayed Bowie on the cover lounging on a chaise in a flowing maxi-dress). The latter was more mellow and introspective, featuring instant classics like the epochal “Changes” and the evocative “Life On Mars.”
Both albums set the stage for Bowie’s masterwork. The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust, was a culmination of all of Bowie’s influences. A loose concept album about an androgynous alien, it harnessed Bowie’s melodic strengths and showcased his flair for the dramatic. Pimped out in an orange proto-mullet and “I Dream Of Jeanie-Meets-Clockwork Orange Droog” loungewear, Bowie introduced Glam & Glitter Rock to America.
Bowie was on the fast track to stardom, touring America, proclaiming his bi-sexuality, producing like-minded artists like Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Mott The Hoople. Bowie was burning the candle at both ends.
As the 70s progressed, Bowie shed personas like a snake sheds it’s skin. The decadent Aladdin Sane, the dystopian Diamond Dogs and the elegant Thin White Duke.
Bowie’s music styles shifted just as effortlessly. He segued from glam-tastic spaceman to smooth Philly Soul crooner. The hits kept coming, “Jean Genie,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Fame,” “Young Americans,” and “Golden Years” were all massive. But his rampant creativity came at a price, Bowie developed a crippling cocaine addiction.
Burned out and emaciated, Bowie retreated to Berlin in 1977 with Iggy Pop and producer Brian Eno. He defied expectations again by recording his minimalist, ambient triptych: Low, Heroes, and Lodger. He also produced Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, and Lust For Life.
Re-hab’ed and revitalized, 1980 found Bowie making his Broadway acting debut as the title character in “The Elephant Man.” He also released his 13th studio album, Scary Monsters. A brittle distillation of Punk & Glam, he revisited the Major Tom character in a sequel of sorts, “Ashes To Ashes.” The album was a critical success, setting the stage for Bowie’s 1983 re-invention.
Collaborating with Disco/Funk producer Nile Rodgers, Bowie crafted his most commercial effort to date. “Let’s Dance” was a trenchant reclamation of the New Wave and New Romanticism, genres Bowie pioneered. The album featured blistering guitar solos from a relatively unknown Blues purist, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Sartorially splendid in designer suits and sporting a shock lemon meringue hair, Bowie gave long-ranging nterviews to magazines like Rolling Stone and Musician, denouncing his 70s claims of bi-sexuality. It was Bowie, 80s style, scrubbed clean of any controversy.
Unfortunately, the synergy couldn’t last. Bowie spent the rest of the 80s in a creative abyss. In an attempt to rouse himself from this artistic malaise, Bowie inserted himself into a band setting for the first time in 20 years. Sadly, Tin Machine was a noble failure.
As the 90s and the Grunge era dawned, Bowie began the decade re-married, (to Supermodel, Iman). His musical explorations took him from soul/jazz/funk hybrids to the emerging styles of Drum & Bass and Jungle. For the first time in his career, Bowie was chasing trends rather than inventing them.
Finally in 2002, Bowie reunited with Tony Visconti, recording two albums, eathen in 2002 and Reality in 2003. Both efforts found Bowie embracing his legacy.
During the “Reality” tour Bowie suffered a heart attack and received an emergency Angioplasty. Following his health scare, Bowie retreated from the public eye. Although he never officially retired, it seemed as though Bowie was done with music. Happily David Bowie is back, releasing his first new album in 10 years, The Next Day.
The album kicks into gear with the title track. It’s a kinetic fever dream that rails against organized religion.
The Next Day serves up a smorgasbord of signature Bowie styles. Three songs satisfy our Goth/Industrial jones. “Dirty Boys” feels feral and primitive. Earl Slick’s savage, slashing guitars lock into a primal pas de deux with Steve Elson’s brutal baritone Sax fills.
“If You Can See Me” is howling and frenetic. Bowie sketches out a harrowing scenario of apocalyptic end times, buttressed by distort guitars and a pummeling beat.
“Love Is Lost,” weds a caffeinated, jittery rhythm with guttural guitars. The lyrics detail the devastation of heartbreak in stark terms: “It’s the darkest hour…Your fear is as old as the world, say goodbye to the thrills of life where love was good and love was bad/ Wave goodbye to a life without pain.” Yikes!
Bowie acts as social arbiter on a couple of tracks. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” uses celestial imagery to limn the cult of celebrity. “Stars are out tonight, they watch us from behind their shades/ From behind their tinted window stretch, gleaming like blackened sunshine.”
Rippling guitar licks wrap around twinkling synths and a yearning string section. The propulsive backbeat and Bowie’s urgent vocals drive the song forward until the instrumental break when the proceedings slow to a Modal minuet.
“I’d Rather Be High” is a withering indictment of our lengthy Middle Eastern occupation. Bowie is contemptuous and unapologetic.. “I’d rather be high, I’d rather be flying/ I’d rather be dead, or out of my head than training these guns on those men in the sand.” A martial cadence urges the melody forward, accented by spiraling guitars.
Allowing the listener to exhale, Bowie slows the action on two numbers, “Where Are We Now” and “Boss Of Me.” The former is a beautiful ballad, lush and elegant, pensive and introspective. The latter is a sideways tribute to his wife, Iman. A soupcon of swooping sax trills echo the Philly Soul sound Bowie explored in the 70s. “Who’d have ever thought, who’d have ever dreamed/That a small town girl like you would be the boss of me.”
Other stand out tracks include the urgent “Valentine’s Day.” “You Will Set The World On Fire” blends slash & burn instrumentation with lyrics that celebrate the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 60s. “Dancing Out In Space” weds a kick drum back beat to slinky guitar fills. Here Bowie insists “It’s something like religion, dancing face to face.” Finally, Bowie gets his Doo-Wop croon on with the sweet elegy, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.”
The album closes with the minimalist “Heat.” Bowie sums up the succinctly sums up the dichotomy of his career: “I am a seer and a liar.”
Along with producer Tony Visconti, The Next Day reunites Bowie with veteran collaborators like guitarist Earl Slick and bass players Tony Levin and Gail Ann Dorsey.
The only caveat here is reserved for the album packaging. The cover art affixes a kind of scaffolding over the art from Bowie’s Heroes album. An apathetic choice for such a creative artist. The lyric sheet employs miniscule print with no separation between songs, making it nearly impossible to read.
These are minor quibbles. The important thing is that Bowie is back at the height of his powers. He is operating on all cylinders. The Next Day is a tour de force.