Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.


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Heroes by David Bowie

If a rock star survives long enough, there inevitably comes a point in his or her career in which every new album is hailed as a return to form. It can be amusing to see this little drama played out every two or three years—as it did, for instance, throughout R.E.M.’s last active decade—but it isn’t hard to understand why. Rock criticism is a singularly thankless job: it’s written on deadline, often with only a few days to consider the work in question, but it concerns itself with a form of art defined by its effect on us over months or years. When an established star puts out a new album, it tends, at minimum, to be polished and professionally produced, with a handful of exciting songs; at first listen, we naturally compare it to our memories of earlier works that have sustained the same qualities over decades or more, and the initial comparison tends to be favorable. Before long, however, the new release is invisibly absorbed into the rest of the artist’s discography, while the older material, tested by time, retains its staying power. And when the next album comes along, in that first blush of excitement, it’s easy to see it as, say, David Bowie’s best work since Scary Monsters.

This is why it pays to be a little cautious with the reviews hailing The Next Day as one of the strongest albums of Bowie’s career. In this case, we need to be especially careful, because it’s his first new album in ten years. Bowie, to put it mildly, is an interesting guy, and it’s been so long since he’s given us anything new that it’s easy to give his latest album more love than it deserves, if only because provides an excuse for us to think and talk about him again. That said, even after a few listens, I think it’s a very good album: my favorite tracks are probably “I’d Rather Be High” and “How Does the Grass Grow?”—the latter largely for its cheeky vocal appropriation of the bridge from “Apache,” the greatest of all rock instrumentals. All the same, I’d probably place it slightly below some of Bowie’s later work, notably the wonderful Heathen, or even Hours, an uneven album that nonetheless contains what I think is Bowie’s best song. And although I’ll continue to listen to this album a lot over the coming weeks, it’s just too soon to say how it will hold up over time.

The Next Day by David Bowie

Yet it’s still a major work, precisely because the wait for it has been so long. Bowie spent most of his career evolving in public, and toward the end, the result was often an album, like Outside or Earthing, that felt a few steps behind the sounds it was so fluently appropriating. The Next Day, by comparison, comes from a Bowie that is hard to recognize: it was recorded in private, almost in secret, after what seems to have been an extended period of reflection. It’s tempting, then, to interpret the result as a statement of what Bowie himself considers to be the heart of his career, which is why the album’s sound is so revealing. In the words of Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker:

The problem is that the production that Bowie and [producer Tony] Visconti chose for the songs puts this record, sonically, closer to the blocky drums and sports-bar guitars of eighties albums like Let’s Dance and Tonight than to some of his slightly hidden gems from the past two decades.

Frere-Jones is disappointed by this, but to me, there’s a more profound message here: as great as the earlier songs may be, Bowie seems to understand that his work needs to be recentered, gently but firmly, on the most nakedly commercial music of his career.

Because it’s in his persona as a superstar that Bowie’s legacy endures, if not to listeners, than certainly to other artists. Last week, I posted a quote from Saul Bellow, which reads in part:

Writers, poets, painters, musicians, philosophers, political thinkers, to name only a few of the categories affected, must woo their readers, viewers, listeners, from distraction. To this we must add, for simple realism demands it, that these same writers, painters, etc., are themselves the children of distraction. As such, they are peculiarly qualified to approach the distracted multitudes. They will have experienced the seductions as well as the destructiveness of the forces we have been considering here.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this perfectly describes Bowie, who, like his disciple Lady Gaga, understands that before you can ask us to reflect on the meaning of stardom and illusion, you first need to achieve the somewhat more straightforward task of becoming the biggest pop star in the world. At his best, Bowie, who took both his name and his earliest creative breakthrough from Kubrick’s 2001, saw the future more clearly than anyone else. And the skull grins through even his most unabashedly mainstream moments. If you listen carefully to “Let’s Dance,” you can hear something rattling in the background, alongside the slick horns and synthetic percussion. It’s the sound of Bowie’s false teeth.

Written by nevalalee

March 18, 2013 at 9:50 am

2 Responses

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  1. Have you seen the “nobituary” about Bowie on Grantland? It’s pretty good reading for fans of the many versions of Bowie. I still love “Heathen” a lot so I’m looking forward to falling for TND.

    le cul en rows

    March 20, 2013 at 7:44 am

  2. I really enjoyed this—thanks for the link!


    March 22, 2013 at 8:12 pm

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