I was reading a new “article” yesterday, which was actually an email correspondence between culture writers Chuck Klosterman and Alex Pappademas in which they were in effect writing an obituary of David Bowie and discussing his impact on music and the world at large. While this seems somewhat odd given that Bowie just released what is something like his 25th solo album, The Next Day, they actually began their email exchange because “a reliable source” gave someone a tip in June 2012 that the Thin White Duke was dying. Very soon. Well, needless to say, that didn’t happen, and not only were rumors of his demise greatly exaggerated but he in fact was most likely working on new material at that time. And that brings us to The Next Day, which we downloaded last night and listened to for the first time.
I’ve never been a fan of Bowie per se. He’s obviously super talented and he certainly has done a number of songs that I liked (and still like). But it wasn’t until I started thinking a little more about him today as I listened to the album for a second time that I came to realize that David Bowie actually holds a somewhat important place in my relationship to music.
I first realized that there was a world of music that existed outside of my parents’ record collection in 1983, when I discovered MTV and FM radio at the same time. And one of the first songs that completely blew my mind was “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie. For probably close to a year you seemingly couldn’t watch more than 30 minutes of MTV without seeing Bowie turn up somewhere. Consider – the first three songs on the Let’s Dance album were “Modern Love,” “China Girl,” and “Let’s Dance.” That’s a career for most artists, and I think I had the “China Girl” single at one point. Fast forward to my high school years, and I went through a “Space Oddity” phase and perhaps more importantly Ziggy Stardust. So not only was Bowie pivotal in turning me on to pop music, but he also opened my eyes to a totally separate one in glam. Not too many artists will do that for you. Holly and I caught Bowie live in concert, which I want to say was right around when Tin Machine was starting to happen, and I remember being surprised by a relatively stripped down stage with Bowie performing in a suit. But it was a great show.
So when I really think about it, David Bowie has always sort of been around in my musical world, sometimes coming to the forefront, but usually just kind of hanging around. This of course makes sense – Bowie is only a few years younger than my father, and he’s literally been making hit records since before I was born. And he’s still relevant. He’s been involved with everyone from Mick Jagger and Tina Turner to Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Did you know that Bowie and Iggy Pop co-wrote “China Girl,” and that Iggy actually recorded it first all the way back in 1977 before Bowie turned it into a mega-hit in 1983? The dude has done just about everything, including play Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ.
What about The Next Day? Well, I’m impressed. Two singles have already been released, but I’d never heard either so I got the benefit of going into the album “cold”. The first of the singles, “Where Are We Now?” was, interestingly, my favorite track of my first two listens (and it’s playing while I’m writing this paragraph). It actually reminds me a lot of some of the amazing Reprise recordings done by Sammy Davis Jr., songs like “Lush Life” and “Stranger in Town”. In fact I hear a lot of that slow, soulful, reflective vibe in a handful of tracks like “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” and “Heat,” and I find these to be the most beautiful songs on The Next Day.
But it’s not all “sad bastard music,” as Jack Black so famously described Belle and Sebastian in High Fidelity. There are some pop numbers and even a few rockers here as well. “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” is the type of song that’s been done before, most notably Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero” and Bad Company’s “Shooting Star,” but Bowie has the hook that I think will propel this song to wide exposure. It’s got a rocking beat and a chorus that could make it a personal anthem for some, or perhaps even a generation. “Dirty Boys” has a slightly dirty, low-fi sound to the vocals and slow, methodical pace, while “I’d Rather be High” has probably the coolest opening riff, one that winds in and out of the song. There’s even an instrumental included as a bonus track on the iTunes download called “Plan”. A guy known as a solo vocalist puts an instrumental on his album. Ladies and gentlemen, David Bowie.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Bowie is going to make his way back to the top of the pop world for a while with The Next Day, and I for one will welcome him back with open arms. Maybe he can add some class to the current cultural wasteland that is pop music and culture, at least for a little while.