First the meteor, and now this: David Bowie, the man who fell back to Earth. On Tuesday, Sony releases the man’s first album in a decade. The good news is that the 14 songs (now streaming on iTunes) reveal the Martian changeling as being highly invested in his much-anticipated return. The disc is sonically rich, lyrically intriguingly and elegantly energized.
The bad news? There is no bad news. Bowie’s back. Stop being so cynical.
“We will never be rid of these stars,” Bowie, 66, sings on the album’s second single, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), “but I hope they live forever.” There’s an upbeat strum at work, with a sleek muscularity to the rhythm and a synthetic-string shimmer balanced by low saxophone burps. It’s a double-sided coin with our heroes. We want them around, but on our terms; go away if your performance or skin droops too much. The flip side is that an artist who stays relevant keeps his or her fans from aging – you’re only as old as your stars.
On board as producer is Tony Visconti, whose working relationship with Bowie covers 11 albums, from 1969’s Space Oddity to 2003’s Reality. So Bowie was comfortable. Opening track The Next Day suggests a glammier David Byrne on a trip to Suffragette City. I’m not sure what the story is all about, but I bet it’s a doozy in Bowie’s mind – “And the priest stiff in hate, now demanding the fun begin.”
Dirty Boys follows. There’s an inclination to attach certain past songs or eras to the new material, but the verses to Dirty Boys stagger like Tom Waits, with a baritone-sax bottom end and some nasty electric riffs. Heavy.
Let’s dance? Boss of Me is stripped down and uniquely funky.
Let’s rock? (You Will) Set the World on Fire lyrically references the Greenwich Village scene of the early ’60s, with name-checks of Baez, Seeger, Ochs, Dylan (as “Bobby”) and Van Ronk. The song itself is all gasoline and guitar riffs. It seems to be a tribute to a black, female singer-guitarist – “You’re in the boat, babe,” Bowie raves, “we’re in the water” – but no one comes to my mind. Possibly Odetta, but more likely a fantasy.
There was concern when the single Where Are We Now? was first released. It’s a wistful, watery daydream of Bowie’s Berlin days, but it sounds like nothing previously heard from him. Some will be glad that it sounds different from like nothing on the rest of the album, as well. Not me, though. It’s the disc’s most memorable track, with a fade-out line “As long as there’s me / As long as there’s you” – a graceful, hopeful and comforting sentiment that would have worked well as the LP’s closing thought.
Where are we now with Bowie? Where are we now with ourselves? Thanking our lucky stars that we’re all still here, perhaps.
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