Photo: Greg Gorman / Courtesy of RCA Records

David Bowie: 25 Deep Cuts (Playlist)

For all of the imagery that dominated the religiosity of David Bowie  --  the fashion, the characters, the hairstyles --  what matters most are the songs. Here are 25 killer deep-cut Bowie originals, album by album.

Like everyone else, I listened to nothing but David Bowie in the days after hearing the news. The night Bowie died, I had felt a disturbance in the Force at 3:00 am, saw the news via text, got out of bed, bereft, and put on Station to Station, knowing that no way in hell I was getting back to sleep. When rock heroes die, it always hurts. But Bowie hurt more, for several reasons, among them that he wasn’t yet 70, that he was still creating so aggressively, and that we didn’t know he was sick. But beyond those earthbound concerns, there was just something about David Bowie that made him seem more immortal than everyone else. My initial reaction when I heard that he died was confused incredulity: “What do you mean, David Bowie died? David Bowie doesn’t die!

At the time the news broke, I had spent the previous two days listening to Blackstar over and over. I had written something about the title song and its video for publication a few days earlier in which I mentioned how well Bowie was holding up, how intact his voice was, how captivating a performer he remained. When his death was announced, I felt weird for those assessments, but it’s all true, even though he was days from death. And, of course, now that we know that Bowie knew he was dying when he wrote the album, listening to Blackstar is a strikingly different experience.

Nearly 40 years earlier, Bowie hit my radar when I was too young to get it. I remember watching that Bing Crosby Christmas special the night it aired in 1977 and thinking that Bowie was a woman. Around 1980, I had gathered the nascent knowledge that rock and roll music is the most important thing in the world, by which time Bowie had been through a decade of the shapeshifting that had made him the most influential rock figure of his era. For my generation, the entry point was Bowie as the lean, elegant, crooning statesmen of the New Romantics, the blonde lothario in double-breasted suits, all knees and elbows and quivering baritone, larger than life at Live Aid, where he debuted that “Dancing in the Streets” video with Mick Jagger, a bitchy rockgod strut-off.

What was mistaken for sexual tension in the video was really just two attention-drenched singers at the height of their fame competing for the title of transcontinental king and queen of ’80s rock, and both Bowie and Jagger wanted both titles. It’s easy to argue that Mick wanted it more, that Bowie had a much different attitude about fame. Fame gave you no tomorrow, Bowie once sang. He was wrong about that, as it turns out, and Bowie was, in reality, acutely interested in the fluctuations in his commercial and critical successes. But it’s also true that, in many ways, Bowie often resided in a darker, more desperate place than Jagger. He came closer to falling apart, doubting his sanity, ravaged by cocaine, always preoccupied by death, by alienation, by dystopias of all sorts.


Light bulb by ColiNOOB (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Which is why Bowie was so important to his fans. Not because he was dark — or not solely because he was dark — but because within the darkness he also offered a sense of connection and liberation. Yes, you’re a rock and roll suicide, but “Oh no, love! You’re not alone!” You’ve got your head all tangled up, but no matter who you’ve been, there is the possibility of transformation from whatever prevailing norms of gender or class or popularity you’ve known. Hot tramps everywhere, you can be like your dreams tonight. It was clear that one way or another, Bowie spoke to the entire world on non-squares. The glam kids, the punkers, the goths, the disco queens, the prog-rockers, the metalheads, the art-rock kooks, the stoners, the ladies, the gentlemen, the others: They all claimed Bowie as one of their own.

This transmutability was one of Bowie’s greatest gifts — he was impossible to box in or pin down, and as much as he turned to face the strange, he kept having hit after hit. Surely, no figure in rock history was able to reach such enormous commercial success through such a consistently challenging output of artistic boldness. Even when it came to Bowie’s musicality, he couldn’t be easily labelled. On one hand, just as Bowie told the tacky things that they looked divine, he was a hero to musicians who lacked conventional musical ability. Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, the snarling punkers — they all loved Bowie because Bowie, too, found freedom in eccentricity and in not second-guessing himself based on popular or critical expectations.

Bowie himself was an unconventional musician: Detractors scoffed that he couldn’t sing properly and that “Ziggy” couldn’t actually play guitar after all. As a frontman, Bowie couldn’t move like Jagger or play like Springsteen. He wasn’t the perfect pop-song craftsman that McCartney was, and as a vocalist he lacked the operatic range of Freddie Mercury or the full-throttled power of Robert Plant. And yet Bowie had more musical range than them all. He was an incredible writer of gorgeous melodies and brilliantly crafted lyrics, all the more genius for their bucking of easy structures and progressions. He was a remarkable singer with an array of voices — the brooding baritone, the vibrato-drenched croon, the baby-doll tenor, the nasal Englishman squawk, the yearning soul cry, the dancing falsetto — and every vocal break and wobble was artfully, intuitively placed.

You want musical alacrity in the studio? Bowie produced The Stooges’ Raw Power, Lou Reed’s Transformer (“Walk on the Wild Side,” “Satellite of Love”), Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes (and wrote the title hit), and his own Ziggy Stardust album all in the same year. Bowie composed songs like a mad scientist, favoring complex progressions combining chords from different keys and turning it all into something startling and beautiful. And Bowie was not only one of the great rock-guitar cultivators of all time, mentoring a steady stream of left-field six-string heroes, he was himself responsible for some of the most indelible guitar riffs, saxophone rides, and electronic tapestries on his records as a multi-instrumentalist and arranger.

This diversity and complexity is what made Bowie the ultimate rock star. He was at turns unrefined and a perfectionist. He dismissed fame and flamboyantly enjoyed adoration. He was studio obsessive who staged giant visual spectacles. He could be musically and vocally rough around the edges and elegantly complex. Sometimes he looked bizarre — made of wax and with British orthodontia — but grew increasingly handsome and always indelibly cool. He was at turns a trailblazer and a classicist. And, yes, he was an even split between swishing femininity and masculine force.

Still, for all of the imagery that dominated the religiosity of Bowie — the fashion, the characters, the hairstyles — what matters most are the songs, and Bowie’s disciplined artistic drive and triumphant prolificacy as a songwriter have few peers. Yes, he’s championed for pushing ahead, for his willingness to be challenging, for having Side 2 be nothing but ambient instrumentals, for being strenuously experimental in form and sound. But the songs had to be great. Oddly, people don’t tend to mention Bowie when they rattle off that top tier of the Great Songwriters, but the Bowie catalog is deep and wide with astounding material, well beyond the hits. Here are 25 killer deep-cut Bowie originals, album by album.

“Love You Till Tuesday” – David Bowie (1967)


The cockney-style music-hall ballads full of ye olde Englishisms were never a great fit for Bowie, even though his self-titled debut contains some real weirdness like the cannibalism tune “We Are Hungry Men” and the grim Dickensian character sketch “Please Mr. Gravedigger”. The best traditional pop number here is “Love You Till Tuesday”, opening like a game-show theme and giving way to Victorian Fauntleroy lyrics so ridiculous (“Who’s that hiding in the apple tree/clinging to a branch?/Don’t be afraid it’s only me/hoping for a little romance”) that Bowie himself couldn’t stifle a laugh. The super-catchy songwriting is no joke, however, a reminder that Bowie was the most sincere ironist in rock and roll.

“Cygnet Committee” – Space Oddity (1969)


The title cut was the smash, but the oddly titled “Cygnet Committee” was where Bowie first demonstrated that he was capable of writing an epic and of working well beyond his years. In the song, Bowie rails gloriously against the empty promises of movements all around him, whether it’s the pretenders with whom he’s lost faith or rock platitudes like “love is all we need” and “kick out the jams.” Whatever the targets of Bowie’s apparent disappointment he turns into major affirmations of righteous selfhood in this stunning, moving masterwork of shifting narrative voices and melodic structures.

At a prog-mented nine-and-a-half minutes, “Cygnet Committee” gradually builds through a rolling series of song fragments, culminating in a long, rambling, passionate final section, with Bowie sounding like Jean Valjean fending off punching tremolo guitars and declaring his opposition to… well, it’s not entirely clear, but he emotes like his soul is at stake. “I want to believe!” and “I want to live!” he sings, a 22-year-old offering an early manifesto on a grand scale.

“The Width of a Circle” – The Man Who Sold the World (1970)


Bowie ventured into hard rock on The Man Who Sold the World, his third album of strikingly different styles in as many tries. “The Width of a Circle” is one that metalheads could get behind, a song that piledrives with the heavy guitar riffage and wailing vocals of Black Sabbath in the same fall that Sabbath’s Paranoid was released. Bowie’s first great guitar foil Mick Ronson has arrived, and he lays down some seriously wammy-drunk breaks over producer Tony Visconti’s busy, burping bass lines. Halfway through, the song shifts into a scary heavy-blues chug as Bowie, already the cracked actor, seems to describe a ménage à trois among himself, God, and the Devil: “His nebulous body swayed above/His tongue swollen with devil’s love/The snake and I/a venom high/I said, “Do it again, do it again!” Modern love gets him to the church on time.

“Quicksand” – Hunky Dory (1971)


From Bowie’s first stone-cold classic, Hunky Dory, comes this rambling, lilting expression of existential agony. You can hear the Beatles influence all over it, and John Lennon’s “Imagine” would be released just four months later. But instead of “Imagine there’s no heaven”, the 24-year-old Bowie offers a much bleaker assessment on the plight of man’s spiritual uncertainty: “I’m tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien/Can’t take my eyes from the great salvation of bullshit faith.” Over Mick Ronson’s stacked acoustic guitars (and gorgeous string arrangements) and future prog hero Rick Wakeman’s piano, Bowie delivers a weary-sounding summation to our deepest questions: “Knowledge comes with death’s release”, a line that in 2016 resonates like never before.

“Soul Love” – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)


There is no “deep cut” on Ziggy Stardust, really, as anyone with more than a passing interest in Bowie is already intimate with the whole album. The second track, “Soul Love”, though, is a particular slice of Bowie genius. Opening with Mick Woodmansey’s slow-funk drums, Bowie sings over his own acoustic strumming and percolating saxophone before the song builds into a second section that reads like Shakespearean verse. Bowie combines sweet verses with a sour chorus in line with the double-edged sword in the song’s title, love that leads to both elation and pain (“a love so strong it tears their hearts…”). It all goes down easy as Bowie plays a hazy sax solo — two actually, one in each ear — and Mick Ronson’s guitar mimics the vocal melody during the coda, a gentle ending to one of Bowie’s prettiest odes to sadness.

“Watch That Man” – Aladdin Sane (1973)


Aladdin Sane, a lad on cocaine. By now a major star in England, Bowie opens the album with a new look and sound (again), this time Bowie’s take on the Stones, a year after Exile on Main Street. Bowie’s rips the joint with his toughest vocals, buried within Mick Ronson’s ragged guitars, as Bowie describes some all-night drunken party in New York full of crooked society types and broken coke mirrors and sax and piano and backup singers all over the place. As the night goes on, things get more confused — “a lemon in a bag played the Tiger Rag” (a reference to Lennon’s bagism?) — and more paranoid until Bowie, “shaking like a leaf”, runs out of the party. That’s Mike Garson on piano in Nicky Hopkins mode, kicking off a 30-year partnership with Bowie and trying to keep up with Mick Woodmansey, who plays the drums on this track like his hair is on fire.

“Sweet Thing”/”Candidate”/”Sweet Thing (Reprise)” – Diamond Dogs (1974)


Back in dystopian mode, 1974 was the sound of the end of things, whether it’s the Ziggy persona, the glam years, human civilization, or the presence of Mick Ronson, whose departure left Bowie to handle all the lead guitar himself. “Sweet Thing” comes off like bedroom soul, but the song is actually a dark depiction of an urban inferno where the streets have claws and prostitutes lure boys into doorways where they find themselves “putting pain in a stranger”. The song is the full expression of Bowie’s vocal range, moving from his deepest bass at the beginning up to a squeal all in one verse, and when the Dame lets it loose, he makes like Liza Minnelli in the city of endless night. As for Bowie’s guitar leads, paired with Mike Garmon’s careening piano tumult around the three-minute mark, it’s a juvenile success, the sound of druggy and lonely diamond dogs holding hands and jumping in the river.

“Somebody Up There Likes Me” – Young Americans (1975)


From Bowie’s “plastic soul” period when he fell hard for Philly-influenced black music, hence the slamming “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, a standout track from Young Americans. Splitting the difference between Steely Dan’s jazz rock and Teddy Pendergrass-style R&B, “Somebody” is anchored by David Sanborn’s wailing alto sax and new-arrival Carlos Alomar’s watery double-tracked guitar figures. Bowie’s vocals are nearly unrecognizable as he tries to sound like a yankee soulman, singing with smooth restraint at first, then growling into the chorus and working himself breathless by the end. It’s another of his great, versatile vocal showcases, and that’s a young Luther Vandross chiming in on the responses. Bowie is taking on false prophets, cults of personality, and political swindlers, a theme that belies the below-the-waist groove in the music. As with everything he touched, even with Bowie imitating other genres, his own expression of blue-eyed soul spawned a new movement in Britain, and the album became his first smash hit in America.

“Word on a Wing” – Station to Station (1976)


One of the most feloniously overlooked songs in the Bowie canon, “Word on a Wing” is a sweeping beauty. Sandwiched between uptempo hits “Golden Years” and “TVC 15”, the song has been a source of debate for Bowiephiles as its lyrics document Bowie’s flirtation with being born again. But whatever spiritual overhaul or commitment Bowie appears to be making here, he acknowledges his doubt: “Just because I believe, don’t mean I don’t think as well.” These were the Thin White Duke’s darkest days, a drug-addled time of tenuous sanity giving rise to an interest in fascism and black magic and, apparently, a desperate reach for a little help from above. Regardless, “Word on a Wing” is simply Bowie at his most gorgeous as a songwriter, six minutes of Bowie sailing his voice over waves of exquisite melodies featuring a series of knee-buckling key changes and E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan’s distinctive playing.

“Always Crashing in the Same Car” – Low (1977)


“Always Crashing” is a sultry Side One fragment that starts immediately with Bowie’s chill-pill vocals amid Brian Eno’s dark-side-of-the-moon synth swirls and Bowie’s Chamberlin hook. Dennis Davis’s muffled drums are set free for the first chorus, where his snare is run through a Harmonizer (thank you, Tony Visconti), and his kick drum creates a lub-dub heartbeat under a stellar second verse about Bowie hitting 94 mph in a parking garage. Ricky Gardiner’s fuzz-wank guitar solo stands in for the third verse, a very Low move. Bowie was escaping the coke-heavy L.A. scene by going to Europe to make the album, and the lyrics on “Always Crashing” use driving metaphors to describe Bowie’s repetitive rut, perhaps based on specific moments of Bowie hitting rock bottom. That sigh he lets out at the beginning of the second chorus tells the story. The song crashes into a final minor chord as though the long erotic night has ended and all that’s left is the hangover. Better put on Side Two.

“Sons of the Silent Age” – “Heroes” (1977)


Coming after the menacing disco of “Beauty and the Beast” and the hopeful title anthem, but before the ambient instrumentals on Side Two (including the great Kraftwerky ode to German long-range ballistic missiles, “V-2 Schneider”) sits “Sons of a Silent Age”. It’s a sort of throwback for Bowie, as he returns to a Cockney accent on the bleak verses, incorporating an internal rhyme scheme and lyrical consonance: “Sons of the silent age / Stand on platforms / Blank looks and notebooks.” The chorus is big and round and romantic, sung in a wholly different voice, another example of the Dame’s tendency to piece fragments together into a single song.

“Heroes” might be Bowie’s saxiest LP, and his drowsy saxophone lines dominate the break between verses, while Robert Fripp’s heavily processed guitar blends with a thick wash of Brian Eno’s synthesizers. What Bowie’s on about is anyone’s guess, probably the lost, drunken souls Bowie observed while cutting the album a few blocks from Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. In any case, it’s another reminder that Bowie was ruminating about death 40 years ago: “They never die/they just go to sleep one day.”

“Red Sails” – Lodger (1979)


A lost track from Lodger, the third in the so-called “Berlin Trilogy”, although the album was recorded in Switzerland. But Brian Eno is still onboard, and “Red Sails” has plenty of Eno’s sonic footprint, including those whirlpool synth clusters and guitar treatments. Bowie sings a bumblebee melody that spills every which way with what amounts to found poetry, using nautical imagery to describe the restless drive of an itinerant rambler. Carlos Alomar lays down a filthy rock-guitar riff (nearly losing the handle on it), and Dennis Davis mostly hammers away at the German-influenced motorik backbeat although he’s unable to resist breaking into some monster fills. And how about Adrian Belew who steps into play an awesomely crazed squall of a guitar solo over the final minute. By the end, Bowie has been on that thunder ocean so long, he’s gone postlingual, chanting himself loony and unable to even count to four properly. This might be the most underrated song on Bowie’s most underrated album.

“Teenage Wildlife” – Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)


As Bowie starts singing over an anthem-setting opening, he applies his most garish ululations, signaling that things are going to get passionate, if not hysterical. And when returning guitarist Robert Fripp sneaks in after the first verse, he plays falcon-fast runs like he’ll never get another chance. Such is the drive of “Teenage Wildlife”, a song that finds Bowie looking in the rearview mirror at all the new-wave upstarts wanting a piece of him. Bowie refers to himself by name at one point, claiming to deny hangers-on any advice, but there’s plenty here anyway, both lyrically and as a musical tour-de-force.

Vocally, Bowie sounds possessed, at turns sounding like the British punks he spawned on the second verse and shifting into a Dylanesque mumble during the bridge. Is that a bridge? How many bridges does this song have!? It’s all lost in the casualties of the teenage wildlife as Fripp and Carlos Alomar pile on, throwing in Chuck Hammer’s guitar synthesizer for good measure. And Roy Bittan is back on piano to provide that extra Springsteenian drama. For years, Scary Monsters was viewed as Bowie’s last great album, a claim that has surely been abandoned as of this decade. Either way, “Teenage Wildlife” is a hell of a way to end a history-altering run.

“Without You” – Let’s Dance (1983)


Talk about front-loading: The three hit singles on Let’s Dance that catapulted Bowie to bigger-than-ever fame — “Modern Love”, “China Girl”, and “Let’s Dance” — are the first three songs on the album. Side Two is forgettable synth-rock goop, an unfortunate sign of the artistic downturn that was to follow. But the last song on Side A is this understated gem. A straightforward love song is a relative rarity in the Bowie canon, but “Without You” comes right at it in the simplest terms: “Woman, I love you / Without you, what would I do?”

Bowie is backed not only by producer Nile Rodgers on a spare guitar pattern but by Rodgers’ rhythm section in Chic, bassist Bernard Edwards (his only appearance on the album, and ain’t it sweet) and drummer Tony Thompson, who plays a fabulously off-kilter drum beat where the second snare of each bar smacks a half-beat early. These are some of Bowie’s most somnambulistic vocals ever, and they’re all the more beautiful for it, as he slurs ahead of and behind the beat and drifts into a gauzy falsetto. Oh, and that’s Stevie Ray Vaughan on those bluesy guitar inserts.

“Loving the Alien” – Tonight (1984)


The consensus low point for ’80s Bowie is probably Tonight, a quickie placeholder to keep those good Let’s Dance vibes going, as Bowie had lost the plot when it came to putting his best material forward and not letting the production get too far away from him. Tellingly, only two songs on the album were written solely by Bowie himself: “Blue Jean”, a top-ten hit, and “Loving the Alien”, the album opener. With its long opening sequence, slow build, grandiose chorus, etc., Bowie obviously intended for this song to be the album’s dramatic anchor, and nothing else on Tonight comes close to matching it.

After years of playing with space tropes, Bowie’s love for the “alien” refers to our investment in modern misconceptions, which he juxtaposes with old-world religious seekers and fighters. Musically, the song takes several chances, with its thorny chord progression, those five triplets that throw you off-balance on the way to the chorus, the arrangement that pairs marimba with Carlos Alomar’s guitar arpeggios and blankets of synths, and the way Bowie pushes his voice to shreds at the top of the chorus. Bowie would later admit that Tonight was awful, but he remained a believer in “Loving the Alien” always.

“Julie” – Never Let Me Down (1987)


Another terrible album buried in ’80s production gloss, there’s little to love on Never Let Me Down, a collection of nadirs best forgotten. The title track is a nice, catchy composition, sung in a Lennon impression, but it’s ruined by synth glop. In contrast to all the slick overkill on the album, “Julie”, the B-side to lead single “Day-In Day-Out”, counts as a tough little rocker. The fact that “Julie” was left off the original album, finally finding its way on for the ’95 reissue, was a sign of the times in ’87. The verses sounds like Dire Straits a la “Walk of Life” (which had come out two years earlier) right down to Bowie’s Knopfleresque vocal murmur, and while the drums are still soaking with to-the-heavens gated effects, this is about as lean as ’80s Bowie gets. Bowie’s double-tracked harmony vocals and Peter Frampton’s lead guitar runs are sweet enough to forget that this song appears to be about a jilted lover’s violent retribution.

“Miracle Goodnight” – Black Tie White Noise (1993)


After the long national nightmare of Bowie’s records as a member of Tin Machine, the Dame returned with a solo record in ’93, which was, predictably, hailed as his return to form. Frankly, it isn’t a very good album, but with the return of Nile Rodgers as producer, BTWN was a step in the right direction. Take the perfectly pleasant “Miracle Goodnight,” for instance, the sound of Bowie in love. He had just married Iman, and Bowie had called the album a wedding gift to her.

A more streamlined production than the rest of the album, the song bounces along on an infectious hook as two synths burple back and forth between your ears and Bowie eschews his trademark elliptical lyricism to tell his bride, “I love the sound of making love.” At the same time, Bowie offers some cautionary spoken-word advice about the past: “The less we know/the better we feel.” At that point, an undulating synth solo takes over, and then at the 3:00 mark, a nifty guitar solo from Rodgers that covers a lot of ground in just four measures.

“Buddha of Suburbia” – The Buddha of Suburbia (Soundtrack) (1993)


The David Bowie album that time forgot. Bowie recorded a set of songs, a few of them Berlin-era-style instrumentals, for a British miniseries. It didn’t see the light of day in America until ’95 and even then disappeared quickly. Bowie, of course, thought the album deserved more attention, and he’s right. The title cut, for instance, is Bowie’s most engaging song in years, one that successfully evokes the structure, if not the sound, of Bowie’s classic period. Borrowing a little, in fact, from “Life on Mars?” it’s a breezy melody that continues to reach new heights from the verse to the chorus to the gorgeous bridge. Another fish out of water tale for Bowie, this one about a suburban kid trying to make it the big city, like Pip in London in Great Expectations, a phrase Bowie borrows for the song. It works mostly because Bowie is left to his own devices — he’s the sole writer and producer and plays both the sax solo and the chopping guitar break toward the end.

“Strangers When We Meet” – Outside (1995)


Another overlooked beauty, from the otherwise clattery cacophony of 1995’s Outside. Reteaming with Brian Eno, Outside attempts to reinvent Bowie as an industrial, techno-rock artist, and while it all sounds ambitious, it is, at an-hour-and-15 minutes long, quite a slog, which means many listeners never gave song #19 (!) much of a listen. Too bad, as it’s easily one of his best songs of the ’90s. A holdover from the Buddha of Suburbia project and re-recorded for Outside, the song is built on a simple 4–3 bassline, and the rhythm section keep their heads down as Mike Garson’s lovely, inventive piano flourishes provide embroidery. But nothing gets in the way of Bowie’s excellent, and largely untreated, vocal performance, one of his best. It’s a refreshing piece of subtlety on a dense album.

“Little Wonder” – Earthling (1997)


The most fascinating thing about “Little Wonder” is the clash between the frenzied jungle electronica and Bowie’s simple, relaxed vocal and melody. Electronic bands like The Prodigy and Daft Punk had big hits in ’97, and Bowie, at age 50, took one last shot at keeping up with what the kids were doing. In addition, Oasis was coming off of its biggest hits, and the guitar drive and Bowie’s decidedly pronounced British accent recall that band as well. There’s some classic Bowie schizophrenia here, splitting the drum ‘n’ bass of the verses with the thick guitar rock of the “so far away” chorus. The lyrics are scattershot nonsense, working in all the names of the Seven Dwarfs, and Bowie settles for winks and nods at his own image in lines like “Mars happy nation / Sit on my karma / Dame meditation / Take me away.” Tin Machine cohort Reeves Gabrels is a miserable influence on Earthling and continually overwhelms the album with his guitar sludge. Still, “Little Wonder” is a clear highlight.

“Something in the Air” – hours… (1999)


After the sonic maulings of Outside and Earthling, the comparatively straightforward hours… came as a welcome end of the decade for Bowie. Not that the songs were there, exactly. Reeves Gabrels is still in the way, for starters, and his production and guitars remain a liability. One that got away was “Something in the Air”, a moody, artful, understated breakup song, a chronicle of a couple that has finally decided to hang it up, and thankfully he might be talking about himself and Reeves. Bowie uses another new voice here, that of the exhausted, defeated character who admits, “I’ve danced with you too long.” Bowie sounds bleary and sings with a staggering pace and foggy tone, and when he holds notes on the chorus, he lets his voice droop flat as though he can’t muster the will to go through with the breakup. “Can’t believe I’m asking you to go,” he sings, before his distorted vocals mix with squealing guitars to sound like pure anguish.

“Heathen (The Rays)” – Heathen (2002)


Fans and critics alike have applied the phrase “best album since Scary Monsters” to every Bowie LP of the last three decades, but with Heathen, it was actually true. It isn’t a perfect album, but the return of producer Tony Visconti made for obvious improvements, bringing about a return to a more focused, relaxed compositional and sonic gracefulness. The record is bookended by the hushed spiritual meditations “Sunday” and “Heathen (The Rays)”. The latter is a stunner, a richly arranged blend of guitars, synths, Phil Spector drums, and Bowie’s careful, pensive vocals.

Heathen is a commentary on Man’s state of belief or lack thereof, another step in Bowie’s lifelong journey through gnosticism, Christianity, Buddhism, the occult, Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, and more. “Heathen”, the song, evokes 9–11 (“steel on the skyline/sky made of glass”), life’s inevitable sunset, and the possibility that none of our lifelong questions will ever be answered. There’s no chorus, and all three verses have a different chord progression, as Bowie finds cripplying beautiful notes to sing. Bowie’s real artistic rebirth starts here.

“Never Get Old” – Reality (2003)


Heathen proved that Bowie could finally stop both forging the musical future or trying to keep up with current trends. Thankfully, Reality continues that course, again with producer Tony Visconti, even though it rocks harder than Heathen and has none of Heathen‘s cohesive design. At age 56, Bowie proclaims that he’s never going to get old on the album’s third track, and the song’s quasi-disco groove and some of Bowie’s most lively singing in years seem to support his claim. Bowie, naturally, claimed that the lyrics were ironic, just like the terrible album cover of an anime Bowie that shaves 30 years off of him. That’s the joke — Bowie is sending up artists his own age who are desperate to keep it rolling with the drugs, the money, the women. Bowie was presumably trying to distance himself from such vanity, but this is Bowie, so the lines between irony and sincerity are blurred. “I’m never ever gonna get old,” Bowie sang. And he never will.

“You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” – The Next Day (2013)


After Bowie’s heart attack in 2004 on the Reality tour, he withdrew from recording, touring, and public life in general. For a decade, Reality was assumed to be Bowie’s final album. And then, in 2013, with no advance publicity, Bowie surprised everyone with The Next Day. “Here I am, not quite dying,” sings Bowie on the album’s lacerating title cut, and Bowie did sounds thrillingly alive on his comeback, a record at turns blisteringly melodic and defiantly fierce. “Where Are We Now?” is the timeless classic, with Bowie once again sitting in a tin can, this time a train in Germany, and finding an exquisite elemental compromise in order to cope — clinging to sun, rain, fire, and our fragile investment in each other.

And on “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”, Bowie tweaks a Hank Williams title and writes one last great waltz. This is no love song, however, but one of the bitterest, most vindictive songs Bowie ever wrote, a seething forewarning to a traitor. It’s an amazing arrangement from Tony Visconti and an evocative performance from Bowie as he proclaims his cold war. The drumbeat at the end is an obvious reference to “Five Years” all those years ago.

“I Can’t Give Everything Away” – Blackstar (2016)


The last song from the last Bowie album: “I know something is very wrong/the pulse returns for prodigal sons/The blackout’s hearts with flowered news/With skull designs upon my shoes.” For decades, his fans looked to Bowie for how to live — his intellectual curiosity, his artistic audacity, his nonconformity, his personal style. Now, at the end, he showed us how to die — with grace, courage, and a blaze of glory. Blackstar is a triumph. As his first #1 album in America, there won’t be many deep cuts here, and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is already a fan favorite. But the song — with its blue-bayou melody, the stealthy lyricism, the eloquence in Bowie’s voice, that gorgeous 12-count wait before the refrain resolves, Donny McCaslin’s saxophone streams — is a fitting way to end a career from a man who until the very end gave us everything.

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This article originally published on 31 January 2016.

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