Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Sasha Frere-Jones

Forever and ever

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The cover of David Bowie's Hours

I knew this day would come, but I allowed myself to hope that it never would. When I first became aware of David Bowie, it happened to be at a point in his career when it seemed as if he had been around forever, and he was everywhere you looked. My dad, a longtime fan, had bought Let’s Dance just like everyone else—he and my mom even saw Bowie perform on the Serious Moonlight tour—and my parents still talk about watching me sing along as a toddler to “Modern Love.” Later, of course, there was Labyrinth, along with so much else that is so deeply embedded in my subconscious that I can’t imagine a world without it. But it took me a long time to realize that I was encountering Bowie at a moment that was a clear outlier in the larger story of his life. The massive success of Let’s Dance, which had originally been intended as a one-off detour, transformed him into a mainstream pop superstar for the first time, and he followed it with a string of commercially minded albums that most critics, along with Bowie himself, rank low in his body of work. But I still love what Sasha Frere-Jones has called “the blocky drums and sports-bar guitars” of this period. It’s richer, weirder stuff than it initially seems, and it’s the first version that comes to mind whenever I think about David Bowie. Which is an awful lot. In fact, as the years pass, I find that I’ve spent most of my life thinking about Bowie pretty much all the time.

When an artist has such a long, productive career and you tune in halfway through, you tend to see his or her music in two parallel chronologies. There’s the true chronology, which you start to piece together as you work backward and forward through the discography and listen to the songs in the order in which they were written and recorded. And there’s the autobiographical chronology, in which the albums assume positions in your memory based on when you listened to them the most. This doesn’t have much to do with their proper release dates: the songs situate themselves in your life wherever they can fit, like enzymes locking onto substrates, and they end up spelling out a new message. If the Bowie of the eighties takes me back to my childhood, I can’t listen to Scary Monsters without being plunged right away into my senior year of high school, in which I listened to it endlessly on a Discman and headphones while riding the train up to Berkeley. My arrival in New York after college was scored to Hours, an album often seen as forgettable, but which contains a handful of Bowie’s loveliest songs, especially “Thursday’s Child” and “Survive.” “Modern Love” played at my wedding. And it’s hard to think of a chapter in my life when he wasn’t important. He was such a given, in fact, that it took me a long time to get a sense of the shape of his career as a whole, in the same way that there are enormous swaths in the lives of your parents that you’ve never bothered to ask about because they’ve always been there.

David Bowie

I saw Bowie perform live twice. The first was the Outside tour with Nine Inch Nails as his opening act, and it was my first rock concert ever: Bowie came onstage to the sound of “Subterraneans” and intoned the lyrics to “Scary Monsters” as a spoken-word piece, an unforgettable moment that I was recently delighted to find online. Much later, I saw him in New York with my brother, with whom I’d also caught a retrospective at the Museum of Television and Radio—this was in the years before YouTube—that collected many of his old videos and performance clips, playing continuously on a screen in a tiny darkened room. By then, Bowie was an institution. He was so established that he had issued bonds secured by royalties from his back catalog, and going back over pictures and footage from his early days was like looking at snapshots of your father and marveling at how long his hair used to be. And occasionally it occurred to me that Bowie would have to die one day, much as I still think the same about Francis Coppola or Werner Herzog. It seemed inconceivable, although hints of mortality are woven throughout his catalog. (As I wrote on this blog once: “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.”) If David Bowie can die, it means that none of us are safe.

After reading the news, the first song I played was “Starman.” I don’t think I’m alone. But the way that song came back into my life is revealing in itself. I’d always been vaguely aware of it, from The Life Aquatic if nothing else—which links Bowie indelibly in my mind with Bill Murray, another celebrity whose departure I anticipate with dread. But I didn’t listen to it closely until I got a copy of his recent greatest hits album Nothing Has Changed. (It was a Christmas present from my brother, which is just another reminder of how entwined Bowie has been in the story of my family.) It’s an eclectic collection of songs on two chunky vinyl discs, with different track listings depending on the format, and it both reminded me of some old favorites and reintroduced me to songs that, for whatever reason, had never been integrated into my internal playlist. The best part was playing it for my two-year-old daughter, who has since been known to ask for Bowie by name. She can sing along to “Changes,” as she did unprompted when I pulled out the album this morning, and to “Heroes,” with her little voice sounding strong and clear: “We can beat dem / Forevah and evah…” It makes me feel like I’m maintaining some kind of continuity. And the phrase “forever and ever” has become a regular part of her vocabulary. She’ll ask: “Am I going to be three forever and ever?” And when it’s time to turn off the lights, and I sit on the edge of her bed, she asks: “Will you stay with me forever and ever?” I want to say yes, but of course I can’t. And neither could David Bowie.


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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

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