David Bowie: Then and Now

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David Bowie: Then and Now

(Photo Credit Brian Ward)

I’ve been trying to figure out why David Bowie’s recent death, at the age of 69, has hit me so hard. Did his music forever shape or alter me? No. Were any of his infectious hits or engrossing albums—all of which I fervently love—among my all-time, desert-island favorites? Again, no. On a less personal level, did the world lose Bowie before it had time to fully appreciate his artistry? Clearly not. He released his first hit album, Space Oddity, when he was 22, and continued making music until Blackstar, which came out almost exactly the day he died. Bowie had an extraordinarily long run.

Yet as the somber headlines faded, appreciation columns ran their course, and radio stations reverted from tributes back to their previous formats, I found myself still deeply saddened by Bowie’s passing. In search of reasons, I devoured articles about his life and legacy. Most focused on his various and ever-changing images: Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, et al. I suppose that’s a convenient editorial “hook” for such pieces, efficiently distinguishing Bowie from other musicians. But frankly I never paid much attention to all that riff-raff. Quite a few of those personae struck me as silly. I never identified with any of them. So that wasn’t it either.

Then I realized that Bowie was the first bona fide rock star who had been with me virtually my entire music-consuming life. He and his music were young and unformed when I was only slightly younger and less formed. He evolved as I evolved. We grew more assured together. Bowie changed over time, and so did I. Together, we entered maturity. In sum, wherever I was in my life, David Bowie was also there—even if I wasn’t consciously aware of him—providing a soundtrack for that stage. Most of us can’t say that about many artists.  

And what a soundtrack it was! For such a commercially successful musician, Bowie was never influenced by contemporary musical formulas. Instead, he boldly, inspiringly followed his own muse wherever it took him. The journey encompassed folk-rock, Britpop, Krautrock, funk, soul, ambient, industrial, and dance-floor material. His lyrics likewise traveled from short-form storytelling to long-form narrative arcs to abstractions, all set within songs that progressed from standard rock structures to those that stretched boundaries. Some of the characters Bowie effected might have been silly, but never his music.   

Indeed, Bowie’s visual constructs may well have obscured the level of musicianship he brought to every project. Watch the Showtime documentary Five Years for a glimpse at the focus and musicianship Bowie brought to every detail of his craft.    

Besides this documentary, its accompanying album, and the superb hits compilation Changesonebowie, the best artifact we have for appreciating the full scope of Bowie’s gifts may well be his parting release, Blackstar. The opening title track is one of the most strikingly original songs Bowie—or anyone, for that matter—has ever recorded. It instantly makes plain that Bowie never stopped innovating. Structurally, the piece somewhat resembles “Station to Station” in that it is ten minutes long, encompasses multiple movements, and has nary a sign of a verse or chorus. Yet the two songs sound nothing alike. “Blackstar” is slow and dreamy, closer to Gregorian chant than rock song. The lyrics, not so much sung as incanted, echo that sensibility. Rhythms are initially hyperkinetic and off-kilter. But despite its many unfamiliar elements, Blackstar is immediately and persistently captivating. Like all of Bowie’s music, it draws you in with its melodies, beat, and soundscape.

The album continues with tracks that subtly embrace various aspects of jazz while eschewing traditional pop form. “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is semi-improvised singing over a tight bass riff; “Lazarus” is sad, slow, cool jazz with the prescient line “Look up here, man, I’m in heaven”; “Sue” is upbeat-but-dark electronica; “Girl Loves Me” won’t make much sense until you consult your Clockwork Orange dictionary. By the sixth and penultimate track, Bowie is moving back toward more traditional jazz-rock. Finally, there is the ravishingly beautiful “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which stands out precisely because it is so comfortably normal. Much has been said of the way the lyrics from “Lazarus” foreshadow his death, but in the closing track Bowie contemplates his own legacy: “Seeing more and feeling less/Saying no but meaning yes/This is all I ever meant/This is the message that I sent.”

For an album with so much going on sonically—much of it electronic—Blackstar manages to avoid unsavory digital artifacts. As Greg Cahill noted in his review, the CD’s sound is quite good. I’d wish for a little more top end, but bass is nice and taut, and Bowie’s voice is pure when it’s supposed to be. Happily, the 96/24 HDtracks.com and SuperHiRez.com downloads I auditioned are even better, directly addressing my only area of complaint. Both are more extended than the CD, and consequently more open-sounding. I recommend both, but give a slight nod to the HDtracks version for being a tad more transparent.

Blackstar is tangible, heartbreaking evidence that Bowie was growing—dramatically so—right up to the end. The album, fittingly and deliberately, is this soundtrack’s closing credits. Blackstar illuminates the degree of our loss, while simultaneously reinforcing all that was extraordinary about this man and his music.

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