In 2004, at the age of 57, David Bowie suffered what he would come to call a “minor” heart attack, despite the fact that he needed a little bit of emergency surgery to get through it. Typically, this sort of event would be enough to throw someone into a midlife crisis of sorts, a kind of second childhood, a heightened period of activity marked by a rejuvenated sense of drive and an unwillingness to waste time in ways that one might have before.
Such a thing has not, to date, materialized in the case of Mr. Bowie, at least in a public sense. Guest appearances and occasional cameos have made their way into the public scene, but for the most part, he’s been quiet. Barely a mention of a new album has entered the airspace surrounding Bowie, despite the fact that the last one he released was more than four years ago. What could possibly be going on?
The compilation of Bowie’s five latest albums in the recently-released David Bowie Box may itself provide an answer. Namely, Bowie spent the ten years or so before his heart attack working his way through his midlife crisis.
Stage 1: Reinvention.
...this chaos is killing me ...
To call reinvention an indicator of anything in the career of someone like David Bowie is kind of like calling sweat an indicator of anxiety on a 90-degree day, but the sort of reinvention that Bowie took on in the mid-‘90s was something unlike anything he’d done before.
For one, it could have been argued that Bowie hadn’t truly redefined himself since the pop leanings of 1983’s Let’s Dance. Sure, he took detours into band-focused rock ‘n’ roll with Tin Machine, and updated the sound of Let’s Dance in a ‘90s sort of way on Black Tie White Noise, but he spent an awful lot of time being the short-haired grinning/smirking conundrum that an awful lot of people now associate with Bowie. He was quickly nearing the point of finding a certain image consistently associated with a given name, despite his history of characters and radical bouts of shapeshifting. All of that had been relegated to a time long gone, the colorful history of an eccentric-but-dapper artiste who had grown up.
Nobody expected that he’d suddenly turn into David Bowie, the electro-goth storyteller.
Bowie himself cites the Young Gods as his primary inspiration for his transformation, though if that were entirely the case, one must wonder why he hadn’t chosen to follow that inspiration ten years earlier. While it’s true that the Young Gods are paragons of longevity and continue to exist even today, their most vital and recognizable work was released in the mid-to-late ‘80s. As such, it’s hard to ignore the timing of the transformation coinciding with the tremendous popularity of one Trent Reznor and his Nine Inch Nails. Perhaps Reznor’s success was the reason he couldn’t put off this persona he’d been toying with for so long. Perhaps, rather than inspiration, Reznor provided context, a way that Bowie could finally step into the new character(s) that had been nagging at him for years previous. It was a way out of the rut he had dug for himself.
...so bye bye love ...hallo Spaceboy ...
Outside was a mess, really, the perfect kind of mess in which an artist reaches for brilliance and occasionally achieves it. He grabbed Reeves Gabrels from the Tin Machine days to play guitar, and along with pianist extraordinaire Mike Garson and überproducer Brian Eno put together this ...thing. It had a huge involved story, and the songs could fit into that story or not, and there were these odd little segues with characters speaking over sound collage. “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” was an incredible bit of clanking, sputtering sturm & drang, “Hallo Spaceboy” said “hi” to techno, and “Strangers When We Meet” (a redo on a song from the great Bowie album that time forgot, The Buddha of Suburbia) was tacked on to remind us that the man made some great pop songs in the ‘70s, too.
Despite the original intent that Outside would be merely the first part of a massive musical story arc, the story was abandoned almost as soon as it was released. Bowie, not willing to settle down for any extended period into any character, was ready to move on to the next one. Earthling was the name of the album that resulted, a title that spoke to his desire to be seen as an outsider on his home planet. By classifying himself in the broadest term possible, he evades classification at any more specific level.
Oddly, the album was rather easy to classify, while as it featured melodies and song structures that evoked classic-period Bowie, its beats were quite clearly derived from the burgeoning drum ‘n’ bass/jungle scene. Earthling is a consistent, unrelenting, fantastic listen, its only downfall the overall sense of a man attempting originality and only managing to ride the coattails of a trend. The album’s last hurrah was one more quick collaboration with Reznor, the artist he’d chosen as a touring partner for the Outside tour despite his disassociation from Reznor as a font of inspiration. The idea of those two artists collaborating was brilliant; the end result was the I’m Afraid of Americans remix EP, an underwhelming soup of paranoia dwarfed in power by the version on the Earthling album.
Perhaps disappointed by his inability to stay ahead of the trends of the time, Bowie retreated into videogame soundtrack work, a medium that, perhaps, underscored his place as one of music’s elder statesmen. The emphasis, of course, was on elder.
David Bowie - Dead Man Walking
Stage 2: Retreat.
...were we built to last? ...
That much of hours… started as videogame music for The Nomad Soul is testament to just how deep within himself Bowie had become in the time after Earthling. In context, they’re fine, but it’s difficult to imagine knowing that you’re writing a song that is going to be featured in a game and coming up with lyrics for it like “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday born, I was Thursday’s child.” Thursday’s child has far to go, you see. In a medium that might have called for work more impersonal than that of his purely musical ventures, Bowie was busy writing songs as heart-wrenchingly introverted as he ever did. It did make sense, then, to extract those songs from the game, add a few more, and make an album out of it. hours… would serve as a benchmark for Bowie, documenting the lowest point of his latter-day career, the second round of Saturn’s return wreaking havoc on a man so recently grasping desperately at relevance.
hours… is the sound of giving up, of resigning oneself to the idea that the best of life has passed, that the future will be judged entirely on that past. Musically, it looks back to the ‘70s and early ‘80s, employing lots of synthesizers and relegating Reeves Gabrels squealy guitars to the background. Gabrels does get to shine on “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell”, a rock ‘n’ roll burner that might have fit right in on Aladdin Sane, but it wasn’t enough. Gabrels saw Bowie getting soft and touchy-feely and got the hell out.
...so it goes ...
At this point, Bowie was (in a professional sense) alone. It was the perfect time to start anew.
David Bowie - Seven (Live)
Stage 3: Rejuvenation.
...rise together through these clouds, as on wings ...
Seeking to redefine and reimagine his legacy a bit, Bowie found producer Mark Plati and began work on a project that would revisit many of his oldest songs, re-recording them and updating them for a new generation. The album was to be called Toy, and it would include these reinterpretations as well as a few songs written in the style of those songs.
Perhaps it took hearing himself as one of the young dudes to help him find whatever it was that made him love making music, or perhaps maturity wouldn’t let him fade into oblivion, but the project eventually evolved into Heathen and Reality. These were albums about finding reason, about finding youth in one’s deeds once the physical manifestation passes. Well into his 50s at this point, Bowie began to embrace his past as something that led directly to his present. He strategically selected cover tunes that would point to specific parts of his past—Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting for You” is a song he used to perform live during the Tin Machine era and could be construed as a goodbye to Gabrels (replaced on guitar by Dave Grohl, of all people), and George Harrison’s “Try Some, Buy Some” is a farewell to a too-soon departed contemporary—and he constructed songs that looked toward the future rather than dwelled on the past.
As two sides of the same coin, Heathen goes the more reflective route while Reality is positively defiant in its approach. That Bowie would choose to start Heathen with a dirge directly reminiscent of something from hours… until a final minute that positively blows up is perfectly symbolic, and the vocal dexterity of tracks like “Slow Burn” and “Slip Away” is positively vital, even if Bowie’s intent is never to rock our socks off. On the other hand, Reality‘s standout “Never Get Old” proclaims that “There’s never gonna be enough money / And there’s never gonna be enough drugs,” while its title track seems to exist solely to prove that Bowie retains the capability to be loud, bombastic, and utterly obnoxious if he feels like it.
Best of all, he doesn’t have to grab on to anything resembling a trend in order to do it.
David Bowie - Cactus (Live)
...I’ve been right, but I’ve been wrong, now I’m back where I started from ...
This last is why David Bowie’s silence of the past four years has been so disappointing, if understandable given his physical condition. Over the course of five albums encompassing nine years, Bowie made his way through what might have been his last bout of shapeshifting, culminating in two albums in which Bowie finally sounds comfortable in his own skin.
The David Bowie Box makes this point not only by including the albums in question, but packaging them together with the B-sides. What can we tell from B-sides? Well, they’re hit-and-miss as B-sides so often are, but there is a trend to be seen as you make your way from Outside to Reality: The early B-sides are largely made up of remixes, and those that aren’t remixes are toss-offs hardly worth a second look. Heathen and Reality‘s B-sides, however, feature a much higher percentage of actual songs, despite the fact that the two albums were released 15 months apart. That sort of prolificacy speaks to confidence. It speaks to joy.
Taken individually, it may well be true that none of the albums in the box can compete with, say, Ziggy Stardust. Still, as a whole, they encompass a remarkable chapter in the history of an incomparable artist. Call it the Crisis Pentalogy, the story of a man flailing through a loss of identity and eventually finding one that feels natural, one that he his comfortable with.
Let’s hope that we can hear just what that identity can come up with sooner rather than later.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More