BY STEVE VOLK DAVID BOWIE ARTS & SCIENCES CORRESPONDENT In honor of the Dame’s return, it’s time to reassess not only his 70s work (it’s still great) but all that came since. Because the truth is, for all the bitchin’ and moanin’ about Bowie’s post-Let’s Dance out-put, he often hit his old marks. Here’s a selection of the best of his blue period.
From David Bowie: The Singles, 1969 to 1993
This epic ballad is simply overstuffed with goodies—from the ‘50s-era “bop bop ba-oos” to the sweeping, ain’t-new-love-grand chorus. Big hearted and perfectly coiffed, “Absolute Beginners” rocketed to the top of the U.K. music charts as Americans queued up to see Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” tour. Glory days. Bowie has , however, rescued this track from obscurity by trotting it out on tour–a gentle way of reminding the cynics he was still writing good songs after Let’s Dance.
“I Can’t Read”
From Tin Machine I (1989)
Bowie’s ill-fated Tin Machine project is often used as a kind of shorthand to describe his creative dissolution. In fact, almost 25 years later, the band’s debut is eminently listenable. And this single track is among his most moving—an experimental, art-rock tour de force about, well, creative dissolution. Using his own frustration with his previous two albums—Tonight and Never Let Me Down—as inspiration, Bowie croons “I can’t read shit anymore.” According to the lyric sheet, anyway. But listen up ‘cause it sounds just like “I can’t reach it, anymore,” as in, his old artistic level, and, lo and behold, over the course of this song, he does. Other disc highlights: “Heaven’s In Here,” “Bus Stop,” and “Baby Can Dance.”
“The Buddha of Suburbia”
From The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
Invited to write the soundtrack to Hanef Kureishi’s novel of the same name, Bowie spent three weeks holed up, mostly by himself, woodshedding. The result was sort of like For Emma… if Bon Iver had been an accomplished art rock-ist regaining his stride (not desperate and feral so much as self-assured and reinvigorated). The title track is the Brit-pop highlight. Bowie channels Kureishi’s pages, landing on a riff that captures that moment of youth when the whole world seems to open up and say, Go ahead, kid, stick it in. Dig the references to “Space Oddity” and “All the Madmen” that top off this sundae of a song. And check out this great, lost Bowie album, which finds a sweet nexus between the sonic adventurousness of Low and utterly contemporary, fizzy pop fun. Other disc highlights: “The Mysteries,” “Dead Against It,” and “Untitled No. 1.”
A smashing concert staple from its release right up till Bowie stopped touring, “Hallo Spaceboy” is the unofficial third installment in a trilogy.
Revisiting the Major Tom character immortalized in “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes” in typically elliptical Bowie fashion, “Spaceboy” finds our hero (unnamed) freed from his space capsule and off drugs, yet still unable to overcome his own sense of alienation. The slam-bang chant that marks the song’s climax, “Moon dust will cover you!” comprises both a warning about where our doomed spaceship Earth is headed and a fitting summation of Bowie’s entire, spacey career. (For an extra, corny treat, check out the Pet Shop Boys’ remix, which Neil Tenant couldn’t resist adorning with fresh vocals directly referencing Major Tom.)
From Outside (1995)
Bowie’s early feint “There is no hell… like an old hell” writes a hefty check—implying a song of existential proportions. But the rest of the track cashes in on that promise. Garson’s classical piano evokes war torn vistas. And the slowly uncoiling tune presents Bowie as lounge lizard, crooning the end of time. Scott Walker and Jacques Brel sit in the audience, nodding approvingly, as the whole “razor sharp crap shoot affair” ends—in graceful, slow-motion bomb blasts that set the dirt to falling just so. Bowie pianist Mike Garson claims this song as one of the best in Bowie’s canon. Ever. He isn’t wrong. Other disc highlights: “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” “I’m Deranged” and “Strangers When We Meet.”
“Battle For Britain (The Letter)”
From Earthling (1997)
The album from whence this comes remains one of the most slagged off of Bowie’s career, usually dismissed as an old man chasing the youth culture he once dictated. But Bowie always mined the underground for inspiration. (See: bringing Kraftwerk-style electronic Kraut-rock into a pop setting on Low as exhibit A.) The only difference here, conceptually, was that Bowie was by now 50 years old—young at heart, perhaps, but too old to gain acceptance as a newly committed jungle or drum and bass fanatic. Ah well. The reality is that taken on their own merits several of these tracks are marvelous. And the ultra-vivid, crunching “Britain” is the best, scoring a taut marriage of Beatle-esque pop and skittering Jungle-ist rhythms. Other disc highlights: “Dead Man Walking,” “I’m Afraid of Americans.”
“Everyone Says ‘Hi’”
From Heathen (2002)
Again with the charming Brit pop, this effervescent tune from Heathen ingratiates itself immediately and unfolds with repeated listens. But, well, what is that dark, formless thing lurking under the surface? Ah, that shadow would be grief. The song captures Bowie’s reaction to his father’s death. Like many a son before and after him, Bowie often thought to pick up the phone and call his old man up before remembering the unthinkable: His dad, like all dads eventually do, had left the building. The resulting track captures both the melancholy of coming to terms with a parent’s death—and the joy Bowie would have felt if his father had remained a phone call away. And you thought he was chilly and remote.
From Heathen (2002)
There are Bowie songs for some of the people (“Modern Love”), Bowie songs for all of the people (“Heroes”) and Bowie songs for Bowie people. This track falls squarely into that last category—sweeping, dramatic and delivered from somewhere far left of center, this mid-tempo ballad became an immediate concert highlight on Bowie’s last two tours. Between its incorporation of the mellotron Bowie used on “Space Oddity,” its spacey vibe, and a chorus that sails well over the top, it captures the essential Bowie-ness that obsessive Bowie-philes love most about their man.
“5:15 The Angels Have Gone”
From Heathen (2002)
Of all the lost gems from Bowie’s later period, this strange power ballad best captures just how adventurous he remained as a songwriter. Elegant and urgent, supper club music delivered at gun point, the chorus to this number hits with the sudden inevitability of a hand grenade rolling off the dinner table. Don’t bother to thank me. You’re welcome. Other disc highlights: “Sunday,” “Heathen” and “I Would Be Your Slave.”
“Bring Me the Disco King”
From Reality (2003)
The Bowie-obsessed know this song’s back story as an 80s tune Bowie tried recording in various styles, at various times, and kept tucking back on the shelf. The track finally found its rightful form as a long, dark, jazz-inflected good-bye of a ballad, broiling with mystery and regret. For the last decade or so, it seemed like the last thing we’d hear from the Dame was his most natural, unmannered tenor, all masks torn away as he eyed the abyss: “Soon there’ll be nothing left of me. Nothing left to release.” Would’ve made a fine ending, though what’s happened since is better.