Gareth Simpson gets to audition the new David Bowie album with a select bunch of music critics at Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios.
WRITING ABOUT DAVID Bowie’s new LP presents a challenge for me. He’s the guy I settled on long ago to be my desert island candidate. It makes sense: his output is so varied that one could just switch forward a couple of years and indulge in quite a different matter. Bowie has managed to maintain respect amongst the listening masses because, aside from a relatively brief glitch, he has consistently produced with integrity and discernment.
Bowie was a conduit for the fringe to infiltrate the mainstream. Naysayers accused him of stylistic plagiarism but no matter what you say, he is a man of good taste who, at the start of the ‘70s, became more popular the less conventional he was.
A good songwriter is judged mostly by creating good songs; songs that you know would touch you regardless of their delivery. Bowie’s songs are a pleasure to play on whatever your chosen instrument. He provides evocative chord progressions, sometimes painfully clever with challenging chords. In the ‘70s these were affected through a variety of sonic textures, espousing expert balladry and hyper rock. A voice of ecstatic and theatrical range. This is what I relate to in Bowie, songs imbued with romantic and geographic escapism.
In this sense, his five year decline post-Let’s Dance is summed up by his 1984 cod-reggae duet with Tina Turner, ‘Tonight’, an utter molestation of the same uber-postglam song that he wrote and produced with Iggy Pop seven years earlier. It appears that at least part of this populist drabness – characteristic of many maturing rock stars in the ‘80s – was a calculated business strategy to recoup the riches he lost under his previous manager, Tony De Fries. When he finally came back to the side of good taste he returned to experimenting with different genres (drum and bass, industrialism), then mellowed into a kind of indie rock reminiscent of Britpop, almost a version of a version of himself. As much as people rate his last few LPs, I guiltily just couldn’t sustain engagement.
So tonight I found myself in a room dominated with fairly ordinary looking men, all with definite music pedigrees but all of us looking very adult. The occasion is the unveiling of Bowie’s first album in 10 years, The Next Day. By now you probably know the story of the impressive secrecy surrounding the creation and surprise announcement of this product of clandestine creativity. You’ll know about his heart attacks on stage in 2004 and that his current line-up includes Tony Visconti and Earl Slick. We’ve witnessed two singles and their accompanying videos, my favourite being the celestial alignment of Bowie and Tilda Swinton on screen together for ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’. This is the Second Coming to many.
I got very excited when the Sony rep pushed the play button. First song, ‘The Next Day’, is a jumpy upbeat number with short bursts of new wave, absolutely in line with anything from Bowie’s Berlin period or Scary Monsters. The band sounds more cohesive and embedded than in his last few LPs.
‘Dirty Boys’ continues in this line, adding a cheeky but filthy baritone saxophone to a kind of scratchy stomping indie blues. It’s noticeable here just how restrained the range of Bowie’s vocals is now. Although he still manages to belt things out, that transcendence of old is missing, obviously in part due to age.
It is when ‘The Stars …’ is in progress that I start to disengage a little. It’s a competent enough song, and interesting on an intellectual level. Bowie remains a poetic and perceptive lyricist. But as the album continues I feel like somehow I need to grow up in my listening approach and relate to a more mature man reflecting on a life and world more lived. As a friend said, this is more observational than aspirational. And this is my challenge.
Because I’m waiting for a moment of transcendence rather than just earnest astuteness backed by so much musicianship. An otherworldly Bowie or a kind of jubilant but maudlin emphaticness. This arrives in the form of first release, ‘Where Are We Now’, with its narrative and nostalgic aesthetic, a much more interesting and epic proposition, with an Englishness that is Damon Albarnesque.
‘If You Can See Me’, like a mash of TV On The Radio and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’, is a novel beast for any-period Bowie, a great song with a great groove, a musical ascension with thrumming base and sprinting guitar.
‘I’d Rather Be High’ brings something so familiar, evoking Blur, Suede, Electrafixion, y’know, mid-‘90s Britpop, with a yellish Bowie sneer. There’s another three-song wait before ‘(You Will) Set The World On Fire’, with a fantastic guitar line and staccato riffs. This is where the rock challenges the more moderate pop regularities the album can fall into. And the penultimate song, ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’, really rewards with sublime balladry. The last song, ‘Heat’, is pure but tense serenity.
There’s a spirit to Bowie, the sky-surveying aspirations that had only just started blunt with Let’s Dance. That’s what I relate to. I wonder if, by the time he emerged from that ‘80s waywardness, that his ‘cynicism’, albeit not jaded or pessimistic, was more interested in concerted artiness and sober reflection. I still want to look at the stars with him. Even through the fog of melancholic revelry, I still want to have a glimpse of their light.
Is it a big deal, this new album? Bowie has recorded since teenage-hood, so to have a 10-year break is a relatively insignificant situation. Of course it came as a surprise that he was recording at all, but the break in itself shouldn’t signal that this was going to be a relentless onset of broken ground. Yet after all is said and done, what if this is his last LP? The idea of this genius leaving us with one last artefact is in fact very moving. This is what I thought of as the LP drew to a close. I’ve had a lifetime relationship with Bowie and probably expect perfection like one can do with many significant relationships in one’s life. Maybe I should cut him some slack. It’s a pretty good LP – and a difficult prospect in a postmodern age of immeasurable musical frontiers – with some great songs and a wealth of intelligence and wisdom. Those guys (and three ladies) that I listened to A New Day with looked very, very impressed. Don’t let my process get in your way. GARETH SIMPSON