important work in color
1968: David Bowie. 1969: Man of Words; Man of Music. 1970: The Man Who Sold the World. 1971: Hunky Dory. 1972: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars * Space Oddity. 1973: Aladdin Sane * Pin Ups * Images 1967 - 68. 1974: Diamond Dogs * David Live. 1975: Young Americans. 1976: Changesbowie * Station to Station. 1977: Low. 1978: Heroes * Stage. 1979: Lodger. 1980: Scary Monsters. 1981: Changestwobowie. 1983: Let's Dance * Tonight. 1987: Never Let You Down. 1989: Sound and Vision. 1989: Tin Machine. 1991: Tin Machine II. 1993: Black Tie, White Noise. 1995: OutSide.
Vaguely surreal, at times slightly cartoonish, David Bowie's subject matter from the beginning has been cleverly subversive. In his mixed-gender love stories it's hard to tell who's doing what to whom unless you pay strict attention. His surprisingly dogged interest in the fascist impulse shows a sometimes rewarding, often uneasy, coupling with pop formats (Diamond Dogs, "Cracked Actor," "Fantastic Voyage," "Yassasin," "It's No Game," "Fashion," "Scream Like a Baby," "China Girl," "Tumble and Twirl," "Dancing With the Big Boys," "Time Will Crawl," "Zeroes"). Murky, ostensibly romantic, portrayals of Bowie-esqe youth became increasingly indecipherable as his career lengthened ("Aladdin Sane," "All the Young Dudes," Diamond Dogs," "Young Americans," "Teenage Wildlife," "Because You're Young"). As a successful artist with a sense of his own estrangement from the world most of us live in, he's written a group of songs about "the way things are" that are sometimes convincing ("Jump They Say," Yassasin," "Up the Hill Backward"), oftentimes not ("Repetition," "Red Money," "Don't Look Down," "Neighborhood Threat," "Day In, Day Out"). Even an album as streamlined and seemingly commercial as Let's Dance has provocative themes that touch on atheism, fascism and innocence, original sin, animalistic impulses and cosmic drudgery.
What this adds up to is a consistently intelligent worldview. What it doesn't add up to is a notable excess of good music. The whole idea of "world view" has impressed itself upon even sub-standard artists to the extent that "having a world view" is just something a self-conscious artist learns to propagate at the same time they are learning musical scales, camera angles, or the difference between minor key and major key. Recently Dave Marsh postulated that Neil Young isn't a great artist because of his lack of world view; but Young's work may have the edge over Bowie's simply because it's more fun to listen to. What Bowie has often lacked are the musical details that can turn coldly cerebral ideas and exercises into full-blown emotional connectors. David Bowie's earliest work remains some of the most pretentious rock music ever put on vinyl, and though he has found ways to fight against his worst instincts, the empty yearning for grandiosity consistently debases his music. In this, he joins other artists: Pete Townshend, Ian Anderson, Todd Rundgren.
The main problems seem to lie in how Bowie chooses to utilize the bands he puts together. Let's Dance was successful with it's terse Nile Rodgers' production, and the presence of Rodgers (rhythm guitar), Stevie Ray Vaughn (lead guitar) and Omar Hakim (drums). The album has a lean, clever production, a punchy, almost spartan rhythm section, and Vaughn's exemplary soloing. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was the pinnacle of Bowie's early career (a career like Paul Simon's which was heavy on portent and long in gestation - the albums before Hunky Dory are awful). Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Mick Woodmansey were a British Invasion influenced band: you could hear it in Woodmansey's Keith Moonisms, Bolder's Jack Bruceisms and Mick Ronson's Jeff Beckisms. Always a bit sloppy, Bowie managed to harness some major energy out of them for a couple of albums, and Ziggy, though a failure as a concept album, is a pop classic. On Ziggy, the fantasy elements put a distance on the material a realistic approach would have eliminated, but it is the over-the-top thematic messiness that gave the work its initial impact. (Not to mention one of the most blatant and expensive ad campaigns ever).
With the rest of Bowie's career stylistic problems accrue. In retrospect, Low seems more like a pop highlight than the avant-garde diversion it was hailed as. Many of the albums that followed - Heroes, Lodger, Scary Monsters, Black Tie; White Noise - sound cluttered, with a cacophony of synth-keyboards, synth-guitars, horns, sound effects, layered vocals and obtuse productions touches. It's hard distinguishing the synth-key solos from the synth-guitar solos and the performers' guitar solos - was the buzzy drone and wail Alomar's, or Belew's, or Fripp's, or Enos. It didnt' make much difference. Also distracting was the rhythm section. Perhaps the intention was to keep 'em dancing while you shoved art down their throats, but the inexpressive monotony that drives much of Bowie's music had the artificiality that usually comes from a drum machine, or from a funk band overextending itself. Lodger, in particular, suffers from trying to conjure up a realistic picture of the world through the artificiality of funk and synthesizers. Bowie bragged about these projects as "world beat" experiments, but there's too much studio in the sound and not enough cultural sharing. The artifice carries over to the pop albums Never Let Me Down and Tonight, which, on songs with street level themes like "Day In, Day Out," "Zeroes," "Too Dizzy," "Don't Look Down," and "Neighborhood Threat," need a band with a street level approach (like the old Spiders) to give Bowie's elegant arrangements some grit and passion. The mismatch of grimy themes and good production values hints at either corporate corruption or aristocratic distance. Adding to the irritation is the distraction of Bowie's voice, which is quirky, amorphous, without much presence, tending to get lost in the muddle (he's usually at his best with a stripped down rock and roll band or lean structures). His tone is too breathy for the kind of edge real funk needs (one explanation for the failure of the horribly contrived Young Americans). Bowie's approach is strict-beat, but his music doesn't swing, it stomps. Station to Station is an exception to that rule. Bowie may be one of the very few artists who make us long for a repetition of his best tricks rather than for an album full of new ideas.
From David Jones to David Bowie to Ziggy Stardust to Hollywood Movie Star to Thin White Duke to Exile in Europe to Pop Crooner to Rock and Roll Dropout to Just-One-Of-The-Boys-In-The-Band, much of Bowie's best work was done as the worm turned. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust is the main highlight of his early career; Station to Station is the pop-funk epiphany, Low is the best of the avant-garde baroque endeavors; Let's Dance an unusual return to clarity. Bowie also conceived one of the best compilation albums yet release by a sixties artist. Sound and Vision goes beyond greatest hits repackaging and gets to the core of Bowie's strengths as a songwriter. It's a near perfect testament to this willfully odd and inspiring, yet highly inconsistent artist.
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