*David Bowie: “The Next Day” (2013)

Bowie’s “comeback” album after his ten year hiatus post-“Reality” didn’t really resonate with me the first time I listened to it; I dismissed it as more “latter-day” Bowie and moved on. When I came back to it a few weeks later, I kept listening to it over and over instead of getting around to writing about it. This album may ever surpass 2002’s “Heathen” for me.

There are so many stand-out tracks on this album. “Love Is Lost”, “If You Can See Me”, and “Boss of Me” are all fantastic, and “(You Will) Set The World On Fire” begins with some of the raunchiest, ball-rattling guitar I’ve heard on a Bowie album since Mick Ronson was around. 

(There’s honestly a lot of great guitar on this album. Gerry Leonard, Earl Slick, and David Torn alternately paint landscapes and then burn them with fire. Yet, the guitar remains firmly in a backing role, which suits the material.)

But, “Heat”. Lordy, “Heat” is maybe one of the most haunting tunes Bowie has ever produced — I fell like it presages a lot of what we’ll hear on 2016’s “Blackstar”. I spent most of last night dreaming about that song. As Bono might say, this is one heavy mother.

A lot of the other songs on the album are what I might call “mid-grade” Bowie, i.e., good but not great, though few manage to disrupt the overall vibe of the album — which I think it why it’s so easy for me to just start listening and then not really look up until the “Heat” closes things out.

“Valentine’s Day” and “I’d Rather Be High” are worth mentioning, if only for the disconnect between the music and lyrics, which I think is kind of rare for Bowie. Both pair grim subject matter — the mind of a school shooter and a WW2 soldier’s battlefield mindset, respectively — with bright, upbeat music, which always feels jarring to me. That, and the music is a little happy for Bowie, reminding me of far lesser moments on albums like “…hours”.

It’s also worth mentioning Jonathan Barnbrook’s album cover, or at least, Barnbrook’s desecration of the classic “Heroes” cover. I’ll admit that, like a lot of “modern art” it initially struck me as pretentious twaddle. But, the more I look at both it and the reaction it instills in me, the more I can see how clever it really is. And, really, if artists can mess around with their old songs, who says they can’t mess around with their old album covers?

I could go on about this album for days. Suffice it to say that knowing that Bowie will give us just one more album before he moves on from this mortal plane just makes me cherish it more. To have “retired” from music for a decade only to return by producing some of the best music of his career is a feat that I think few, if any, musicians have managed to accomplish. “These humans still have much to learn; I’d better get back to work before it’s too late.” The fact that the drum beat for “Five Years” appears at the end of “Heat” maybe hints at his knowing time was running short.


P.S. — A bonus album, “The Next Day Extra” contains a number of decent tracks recorded during these same sessions, plus a 10-minute (!) remix of “Love Is Lost” that’s actually pretty damn good.

David Bowie: “Reality” (2003)

What’s wonderful about this album is “New Killer Star”, which may now be one of my favorite Bowie tracks — not something I was expecting to find in 21st-century Bowie. It’s a fantastic groove that sounds not so much like it picks up where Bowie left off in 1980, but rather that it’s the kind of track he would have written had he never given up that musical direction in the first place. Had Bowie kept hammering away at his incubated-in-Berlin sound, settling in to a “default mode” as so many other artists do, “New Killer Star” is the song he would have written once he got to 2003. It’s like a taste of some Bowie from an alternate universe.

And regardless, it’s a great track. I feel like it’s Bowie trying to do nothing more than be Bowie, and the result is glorious.

The album’s closer, “Bring Me The Disco King”, is also a phenomenal track. It’s practically straight-up jazz, which allows long-time Bowie sideman Mike Garson to really stretch out and bathe us in the glassy warmth of his piano chops.

But beyond these — well, the album doesn’t really do it for me. There are some other good moments, like “She’ll Drive The Big Car”, and hearing Bowie blast out a cover of “Pablo Picasso” is pretty amusing, but beyond that, it leaves me a little flat. It could be that 2002’s “Heathen” set my expectations too high.

P.S., on the associated tour, Bowie had a heart attack on stage while playing a date in Germany. Solidarity, brother.


David Bowie: “Heathen” (2002)

This is a Really Good Fucking Album™, and would still be so if only for the track “5:15 The Angels Have Gone”. It starts  off as a fairly minimalist, almost offensively simple number, that then erupts into one of the most magnificent choruses  I’ve ever heard on a Bowie album. It a chorus that reminds us that Bowie is not only a legendary songwriter and a pop  iconoclast, but is also one the greatest vocalists of the modern era. To listen this chorus is to see the clouds part before  you and the heavens emit rays of golden voice-light that bathe you in the warmth of knowing that everything is going to  be okay.

Anyway, “Heathen” is a wonderful palate-cleanser after the plushy Sting-ness of “hours…” Bowie’s first album of the new  millennium sees him leave Reeves Gabrels behind and reunite with legendary producer and collaborator Tony Visconti, as  well as bring in some heavy hitters — Pete Townshend, Dave Grohl, Tony Visconti, Lisa Germano — to guest on a few  tracks. Carlos Alomar is back in the mix as well, and David Torn begins his stint as resident Bowie stunt-guitarist.  Wikipedia mentions that, though the songs were written prior to the September 11 attacks, the album nonetheless seems  to address the tension pervading the country at the time — Bowie himself had been living in NYC for some time by then.

The album definitely sports its fair share of slick production, but thankfully nothing as saccharine as “hours…” There’s an  organic quality to everything on this album, and the covers Bowie performs — the Pixies, Neil Young, and the Legendary  Stardust Cowboy — retain a certain rawness.

The only point at which this album falters, for me, is when we near the end and hit “Everyone Says ‘Hi'”. The more I  listen to the song, the more I enjoy it, but it’s still a little too… happy. And the follow-up, “A Better Future” just loses me  completely; it feels twee, at best. (That said, the remix by Air repairs a lot of the damage; I’d have preferred if it were  the definitive version.)

In all, “Heathen” has been a refreshing waypoint on my journey through Bowie’s output. A good chunk of his ’90s work  was just a tough row to hoe for me. As with any artists with such a long and productive career, I think we tend to pick  and choose those works that resonate with us. IMO, “Heathen” is an essential album to have in one’s Bowie collection.

Oh, an addendum: there are a lot of outtakes from this album, so if you’re enjoying it, seek them out. Some are new  songs, some are re-recordings for Bowie’s past, and all of them are wonderful.


David Bowie: “hours…” (1999)

After the piledriver of electronica that was “Earthling”, the pillowy “hours…” comes off as almost adult contemporary; one critic mentioned in the Wikipedia article says this is Bowie as a “highbrow Sting”. Honestly, that seems the most apt description to me. I found this album pretty toothless, which is generally a big sin for me. The smooth, mushy production dulls even Gabrels’ normally angular guitar. 

What’s doubly-damning for me is that none of the songs really rise above this cushy treatment. “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” tries desperately to rock out in almost Tin Machine fashion, but it’s so syrupy that it simply makes Bowie seem like an over-the-hill rocker failing to recapture his former glory. “New Angels of Promise” almost takes us back to Berlin, but misses its connecting flight. And “Seven”… I don’t even know what to do with this strummy, block chord acoustic number that’s just plain beneath an artist of Bowie’s caliber. I will say that “Thursday’s Child”, the first single released for the album, is definitely a brainworm, though it’s also possibly the most “Sting” of all the songs, and I mean that in a bad way.

In all, given that Bowie has been building up to the end of the millennium for quite a few albums now, this last hurrah before Y2k feels more like a whimper — partying like it’s 1998.


David Bowie: “Earthling” (1997)

I have distinct memories of this album and seeing stand-ups of the cover and Bowie’s kick-ass “Union Jacket” in the local record store. This is one of the albums I’ve been looking forward to since I started this project.

So this is Bowie and Gabrels getting their Nine Inch Nails on, writing heavy, rapid-fire, noisy electronica — and it’s glorious to behold. The phrase “his best since Scary Monsters” gets bandied around a lot when people review any given Bowie album after 1980, but this is the first one that, IMO, is deserving of the phrase. I find myself enthusiastically head-banging whenever “I’m Afraid Of Americans” comes on, and “Little Wonder” will get stuck in my head. Granted, I’m not super-nuts about “Dead Man Walking”, but as low points on a Bowie album go, it’s pretty damn good.

It’s especially nice to hear Bowie music with an edge after the slick, synth-y production of the last two albums; it’s like we’re jumping back a decade to the Tin Machine years, but now at 160bpm. This is the first album Bowie has self-produced since “Diamond Dogs”, and, man, all I can say is the Bowie should self-produce more often.


David Bowie: “Outside” (1995)

“Outside” sees Bowie reunite with Brian Eno for his first “experimental” album since 1979’s “Lodger”. Also on hand are Bowie veterans Mike Garson, Carlos Alomar, and ’90s-partner-in-crime Reeves Gabrels, among others. This is Bowie’s longest studio album to date, clocking in at about 75 minutes. Recorded dialogue interspersed throughout tells the story of detective Nathan Adler as he investigates “art crime” at the end of the 20th century.

Having been underwhelmed by “Black Tie, White Noise”, I was pleasantly surprised by opening tracks like “Outside” and “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”. This is definitely more challenging music than Bowie’s made in probably a decade, and the theatricality of it is reminiscent of “Diamond Dogs”.

That said, it also reminds me a bit of a similar project from 1993, Pete Townshend’s “Psychoderelict”, namely in that the concept sort of gets in the way of the music. I can help but wonder how much more enjoyable the album might have been if the dialogue had been removed and more focus put on the music.

Wikipedia notes that this album was entirely improvised, Bowie having started recording with no songs written prior. Honestly, I think it kind of shows; there are some good moments, but also some repetition and fairly static composition ticking along in time to what now sound to me like fairly dated drum loops. I was actually surprised to find out that it was Gabrels on guitar here, as his usual virtuosity and edgy harmonic sense seems largely absent.

I’ve listened to the album three or four times now, and honestly nothing past the first few tracks seems to stay with me. Still, it’s Bowie moving in a general direction that I like, so I happy to see where he goes next.



David Bowie: Black Tie, White Noise (1993)

“Black Tie, White Noise” sees Bowie reuniting with “Let’s Dance” producer Nile Rodgers in an attempt to create “a new kind of melodic form of house [music].” Spiders from Mars veteran Mick Ronson is also brought in, working with Bowie for the first time in decades, as is Tin machine alum Reeves Gabrels.

Normally, I make a point of listening to these albums at least two or three times, but like “Never Let Me Down”, but I just couldn’t do it this time. Maybe it’s something about Bowie working with Rodgers that I just don’t like, or else the fact that I am not a big fan of dance music, particularly house.

For me, this is very uninteresting music: repetitive in structure, uncomplicated in harmony, and with lost of pounding four-on-the-floor rhythms. Bowie is featured on saxophone quite a bit, and I often find the melodies he chooses to play quite grating. Though his line in “Miracle Goodnight” sounds so much like the theme from “Sanford & Son” that I had to resist cringing the whole time. There’s also of plodding use of early-’90s sampling technology, e.g., snippets of spoken-word that repeat endlessly. And the cover of Cream’s “I Feel Free” is very typical ’90s R&B “let’s reimagine a classic” bombast that, for me, sucks all the life out of the song. The bonus track, “Lucy Can’t Dance”, may be one of the worst Bowie songs I’ve ever heard.

Again, it could be that this album isn’t objectively bad, but just in a style that does nothing for me. Mostly, I found myself missing Tin Machine and eager to get to “Earthling” and later albums.


David Bowie (Tin Machine): “Tin Machine II” (1991)

Bowie’s second foray with Tin Machine finds the first album’s bombast tempered with a bit more melodicism this time 
around. Hugh Padgam, Bowie’s producer on “Tonight”, steps in and gives the album his characteristic sheen, of which I’ll 
admit I am a big fan, and so much prefer the sound of this album to the first. That said, it also serves to make the album 
feel more like a hard-rocking take on “Tonight”-era Bowie than a product of Tin Machine the band.

Which, honestly, I don’t mind. Hunt Sales steps up to take lead vocals — and songwriting credit — on two songs, the blues-
y “Stateside” and the sorta-power ballad “Sorry”. And, honestly, as kinda-catchy as they are, they are serious lowpoints for 
the album and would have been better left as B-sides. The album is best when Bowie and Gabrels are in charge, particularly 
“Baby Universal”, the strongest track on the album, IMO.

All that aside, I’ve listenend to the album three or four times now and, as much as I basically enjoy it, few of the tracks 
leave any lasting impression on me. I couldn’t hum you even a bar of songs like “Shopping for GIrls” or “One Shot.” Not 
that they’re bad songs; they just seem to evaporate from my memory after each listen. (Which, unfortunately can’t be said 
for the two Sales tunes.) The one cover on the album, Bryan Ferry’s “If There Is Something”, is also a bit of a slog for me 
(as is Ferry’s original, so it could be I just don’t ike the song).

So, while Tin Machine began as a wonderful experiment, it seems to overstay its welcome before this second outing is even 
done playing. Gabrels is really the big takeaway from this era of Bowie’s career, as is Bowie’s shaking off his mainstream 
success and once again challenging himself to do something different. Tin Machine is a wonderful thing that needed to 
happen, but I admit that, as much as I did enjoy this album, I’m not unhappy seeing Bowie move on to the next phase in 
his career.