It’s been 46 years since David Bowie put out his first record and we’re still trying to figure him out. We’re still trying because he’s still dodging definition at every turn. Just look at the cover of his latest album, The Next Day, an album that itself emerged from a decade or radio silence and health scares and even near-death rumors. Then there’s the cover shot from NME. If these are more overt, or rather more self-referencing versions of his love of costume, of hiding, of the artifice of performance, they still aren’t new ideas for Bowie.
Sure, Ziggy Stardust is his best, most famous stage and record alter-ego, but the 40th anniversary of Stardust’s counterpoint, Aladdin Sane, gives us a new opportunity to puzzle over this 1973 gem. Aladdin Sane feels both similar and utterly different from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, and it’s hard to tell which it is at times. It’s hard to tell if Sane, as his name implies, is more grounded than the astral-plane-like Stardust, or if he is indeed, a lad insane.
The record that finds Bowie donning the bolt of lightning is tricky to pin down, trickier than Stardust by a long shot. They both play with rock tropes, but Ziggy Stardust was an invitation to visit another, fully-formed world. We were the guests and Stardust the host, strutting confidently through a consistent, fascinating world, not waiting for us to keep up. Aladdin Sane is a much more scattershot set, as steeped in traditions as its predecessor but far more restless with them, far happier to disconnect and jump around so that we never quite catch Bowie head on here. We never quite get a feel for his persona is about as he flits from party to party and location to location.
It’s also an album full of people who aren’t what they seem. The man from “Watch That Man” certainly “talks like a jerk” but Bowie also warns against confronting him because “he can eat you with a fork and spoon.” Another man in the song “paints holes in his hands,” impersonating Jesus Christ while also only being defined by his love of another man’s work, namely Benny Goodman. On “Drive In Saturday”, the couple the song focuses on hides as well. The man’s “name was always Buddy” but the phrasing makes it feel like a nickname to hide an identity, while his date might “sigh like Twig the Wonder Kid”, but she has no organic gestures of her own. In “Cracked Actors”, Bowie insists to someone “show me you’re real”, while on “Time” he posits the title entity as the one in control of all these personas, all these motions. “His script is you and me, boy,” he sings, hinting at not so much predestination as filling a role. The people that are clearly defined here, namely Aladdin Sane and the woman from “Lady Grinning Soul” fare no better than these other “actors”. Sane is alone, left to wonder “Who’ll love Aladdin Sane?” while “Lady Grinning Soul” will love you, for a night. She’ll expose herself to you, the only person here who does it seems. Though she wears cologne – another mask – it’s when the “clothes are strewn” that the picture of her is complete. But when she does that “she’ll be your living end” and there’s an ominous note to this, to the woman who will “lay belief on you.”
That, in the end, this belief also signals an end – perhaps even death – it’s no wonder the rest of the album jumps around from scene to scene, partying hard one moment and the next moment scraping fame out of rebellion (“Panic in Detriot”). It’s an album that doesn’t expose the series of masks and distractions but rather bolsters them. The music itself does this as well. “Watch That Man” is a rollicking blues-rock tune, the kind of song that would fill the party dance floor, even as the worry and paranoia of this particular party mounts. “Drive-In Saturday” has a romantic sway, those perfect “bah-bah-bah” backing vocals, that streetlight sax, but the woman is “uncertain if she likes him / but she knows she really loves him.” The music on “Panic in Detroit” seems shadowy and dangerous enough, though Bowie himself seems downright zealous about this panic, too busy getting autographs to flee the melee.
There are moments where the music does expose some subterranean elements. “Aladdin Sane” has that perfectly untethered piano work by Mike Garson, bubbling to the surface as unruly as Aladdin Sane’s surging reservoir of desire. The lovestruck lightness of “The Prettiest Star” does show the one thing in the past that seems to genuinely stick here, the love for that title star. Even Bowie’s take on the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is almost rote, but the way he speeds up the hook in the chorus implies a desperation, perhaps a knowledge of the “living end” coming in the last song.
Still, these songs don’t provide clarity so much as muddy the waters further. These aren’t about getting at what’s under the artifice so much as reminding us the artifice is there, that it is strong enough to keep those things hidden, if not entirely then effectively enough that won’t fully explicate them. This is the power of the best of Bowie’s work, and if Aladdin Sane isn’t his best record, it may be the best example of one of his central themes: the artifice not as something to break through, not as an impediment on the way to the real, but the artifice as its own sort of realness. Following Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane is a much more difficult character, a symbol in search of things to symbolize. These also fall into a series that both predates them (1969’s Space Oddity, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World) and follows them with records named Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, “Heroes”, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), and so on. They’re all records named after symbols, the mask presented to us not as the thing that hides the face but rather the face itself. If these are Bowie’s most fascinating moments – along with other albums like Low, which fractures but never exposes – it’s interesting to note that his self-titled debut sounds little like the artist he’d become. It’s also interesting to note that later albums with more straightforward, real-world titles like Let’s Dance and Tonight fall utterly apart. It’s when Bowie is hidden that he shows us the most, that his music is at its best. Aladdin Sane is the best example of this thread of his career, and perhaps a better place to look for a new angle on Bowie in 2013 over the self-conscious looking over his shoulder he does on The Next Day. Aladdin Sane can tell us more about David Bowie than David Bowie can.