When David Bowie passed away in January, 2016, there were tributes everywhere. Music critics and fans alike tripped over themselves to praise the innovation and talent of the Englishman who changed the way the world looked at pop music. Even I can’t say enough about what Bowie’s music did for me, starting with hearing “Space Oddity” for the first time in 1972, when I was six years old. He was the first major stopover in my five decade exploration of music. There’a reason the first chapter of my forthcoming book is called “Ground Control to Major Tom …”
Bowie’s career spanned nearly 50 years. Most of his hits came in the ’70s, and that’s where journalists and fans seemed to place their emphasis during the tributes. For a couple of months, I couldn’t stop hearing about Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and the Berlin years. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciated the music from these periods. I even grudgingly allowed myself to like the more pop-oriented “Let’s Dance” material from the early ’80s. But I know myself well, particularly where musical exploration is concerned. And when the people flock to something, I tend to head in the other direction. Bowie’s music is no exception.
As much as I appreciated the ’70s work, Bowie’s interest in taking on a new personae to go along with the music never really interested me. Rock, Glam, Soul, Dance … each period came with a personality. What I preferred was when Bowie pushed all that aside, and just started singing. That, to me, is what he did with his last few albums. I’m sure someone has come up with a name for this era. I just call it 21st Century Bowie.
Bowie appeared to do his last “personality” work with the ’95 album Outside. It is a positively brilliant record, but it does not fit this particular discussion. To my mind, Bowie started his 21st century exploration a couple of years later, when he released Earthling. For this album, Bowie and his band embraced the hyperkinetic sound of “drum and bass” or “jungle” music, as it was known at the time. Frantic electronic percussion riffs were augmented by the squalling guitars of Reeves Gabrels and the grounded voice of David Bowie. I had been listening off and on to this new musical style for about a year when Bowie’s album came along. Until then, I had been wondering how a singer could comfortably fit his voice inside all that electronic frenzy. Bowie answered my question.
What I admire most about this album is how Bowie and company didn’t try to reshape the electronic sound to fit their abilities. Rather, the band appeared to drop itself right into the middle of the sound, and let the rock shape itself right along with the grooves.
Bowie’s ’99 release, Hours, feels like a transition. The music was heading somewhere new, and this album was the path that led there. It’s my least favorite of the 21st century albums, but it still has value, and contains a couple of really good songs. I remember thinking as I played this album, “This isn’t it. But Bowie can see it from here.”
In 2002, Bowie found it. He released Heathen, a positively stunning collection of songs devoid of any kind of frontman gimmick. The CD’s cover declared the music “Classic David Bowie, circa 2002.” I can get behind that, no problem. The music had a very modern sound, driven mostly by the efforts of guitarist David Torn. But more than that, it sounded like Bowie got himself a great batch of tunes, locked in, and sang his ass off! From the opening strains of “Sunday,” my favorite track, I could hear the earnestness behind his vocals. I couldn’t help but be deeply moved by what I was hearing.
The roll continued with Reality, released in 2003. Bowie had not only found what he was looking for, he was having a lot of fun with it! The songs on this album were, for the most part, a little lighter than what he had produced before. I, for one, can’t help but smile any time I hear Bowie’s band launch into “New Killer Star.” It just looks like it would be a joy to play.
Bowie took a band of top-flight musicians on the road in support of this album. While in Ireland, they recorded an absolutely amazing show that was packaged as A Reality Tour, one of my favorite live albums of all time. There was no need for costume changes, crazy lighting, or any other distractions. This band was about the music, and they made the most of every note. Even the classics sounded fresh in the hands of these remarkable musicians.
And there could be no doubting that Bowie was still very much about his voice and its earnestness. It’s been said the mark of a truly great song is knowing it can be broken down to acoustic instruments and sung without frills. This comes pretty damned close.
Bowie dropped out of the spotlight after the Reality tour, presumably due to health reasons. Like many others, I moved on to other musical things. Bowie would be back when he came back. And that would happen when he was good and ready. When he resurfaced nearly a decade later with The Next Day, I was on board once again, even if I was baffled slightly by the album’s art work (basically a redress of Heroes). But while the cover was a throwback, the music certainly was not. Bowie was still exploring, and there were some interesting moments to be found within. It’s definitely an album worth hearing.
Like most Bowie fans, I was excited to receive Blackstar in 2016. And like most fans, I had no idea Bowie was saying goodbye with this album. I remember buying it the Friday it was released. Two days later, I woke up to the news that David Bowie was gone. I do police work for a living, but it didn’t take a genius detective to read the clues Bowie left in this final batch of songs.
Naturally, my favorite song on the record got little to no attention. “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” struck me as a wonderful throwback to the Earthling days. The hyperkinetic percussion was back, even if it sounded a bit more organic this time. There was no doubting the vibe, which never fails to get me moving, regardless of my mood. It was a nice way of going full circle within the 21st Century Bowie era.
I wish people — particularly those claiming to be Bowie fans — would take the time to explore the music that didn’t make it to the radio. The passing of David Bowie has left a hole in my heart. But at least I have the music to remind me of what was lost, particularly after Let’s Dance. There’s a treasure trove of music out there. Take a little time out of your day to explore it. You won’t regret it.