First of all I’d like to make something clear, I am a David Bowie addict. Not in recovery, not in denial, but an addict through and through. I can’t ignore him. I have to buy everything he does, in every format available. I have to find a way to like everything. Even albums like Tonight and Tin Machine 1 & 2 find me arguing for their collective ‘misunderstood’ status.
I’m a Bowie obsessive. It’s a disease. I’ve had it since I was young. I make no apologies.
A former girlfriend once complained that I talked about Bowie so much she thought it was him I was really going out with (in retrospect her profile was quite Bowie-esque). This complaint was soon after I’d plastered the sixth form common room of my school with loads of Bowie posters, regardless of what my other classmates thought about the great man. I’ve forced my love of Bowie on every relationship I’ve been in since. In fact, after 20 years of being forced to listen to Bowie, my wife has succumbed to some of his music. My eldest daughter wears a Bowie t-shirt, my youngest loves the Labyrinth film and some of his music. Only my son remains untouched by Bowie’s music – but I’m working on him.
An aspect of this OCBD (Obsessive Compulsive Bowiephile Disorder) is marked by a constant scouring of news pages for information. Any information will do. With the advent of the Internet this scouring took shape as a daily Google news search. So much searching for so little news.
Like many Bowiephiles I like to consider myself an expert on Bowie. So, like so many Bowiephiles I was stunned by the silent return of the former Thin White Duke on his 66th birthday. It was a huge event. And like all huge events I will probably always remember where I was when I heard the news. It was 6.30am and I was driving to the local shop to buy milk. Radio 4 was on and experts were waxing lyrical about the genius of Bowie. ‘Shit’, I thought, ‘he must have died’. I pulled over… the pit of my stomach knotted, the welling from deep inside started to rush to the surface and then… then they played ‘Where Are We Now?’. Shock turned to elation. He sang about Berlin and that elation turned to nostalgic celebration. Bowie was back. The world was suddenly a happier place.
But how the hell hadn’t I picked up on this? The hints were surely there. The photo of Bowie walking through New York with a copy of Q under his arm, allegedly disappearing into a studio in the NoLita area of Manhatten. The sighting of Bowie with assorted musicians in an Italian restaurant near a studio in the same area, as reported in the Julio Exclusive – a mouthful of pennies blog post . Then the licensing of the Bowie logo to a series of Primark retro t-shirts in December 2012 and the announcement of the Bowie exhibition at the V&A both offered huge hints that a marketing campaign was kicking into action.
But all of these signposts were dismissed as mere rumours created by a public willing their hero to return. Bowie biographers wrote authoritative articles in newspapers and magazines declaring Bowie’s life in music to be over. So we believed them.
And all the while Bowie simply told the world he was compiling a book of photos of everyday objects. Which is a pretty good Twitter review of The Next Day. But more of this later. What really interests me is the nature of his return… the silent voice in a world of media noise.
The silent voice in a world of media noise
The lack of tangible mediated signposts is probably the most notable thing about Bowie’s return. Bowie’s work has, since the success of Ziggy Stardust been accompanied by a huge, unmistakable and brilliantly loud concept. Whether the death of Ziggy or the birth of The Thin White Duke, the electronic music pioneer or the new media alchemist, Bowie’s each and every move has been supported by a look, a style, a quote, an image, a sound… NOISE.
The noise that surrounds The Next Day however hasn’t come from Bowie himself. His producer Tony Visconti has spoken. The critics have spoken. Even Angie Bowie has had her say. It’s just like old times, except Bowie, one of art’s great communicators is saying nothing. He’s set to radio silence.
The entire project is an obliteration of Bowie the myth. The album’s cover art features a blank white square placed over the iconic Heroes image. Stylised text graphics are replaced by basic, functional font. The single ‘Where are We Now?’ features an inverted image of Bowie in Thin White Duke pose as its cover. The video for second single ‘The Stars are Out Tonight’ features Tilda Swinton playing an Angie Bowie type character and Norwegian model Iselin Steiro playing Man Who Fell to Earth period David. The video’s narrative recalls that film in numerous ways. Only this time the alien isn’t Thomas Jerome Newton, but Bowie the youngster… observed from the outside by an older and distant Bowie before becoming ravaged by his celebrity self. It’s all about dislocation… and immersion. To uncover the truth you have to challenge the myth.
But the myths that Bowie challenges here aren’t just the numerous versions of himself over the years, but also the myth of information access in this age of media saturation. The noise of silence represented by the latest comeback could only have worked in the twenty-four-seven-wired-for-info environment of V2.0 media.
Social media has placed us at the centre of our own media universes. The subsequent ‘mediaverse’ has enabled us to become our own brands to be consumed through the click of a ‘like’, ‘following’, ‘friend’, etc. Our comments become brand statements. The footprint of our media habits and key word behaviours enable advertisers to locate us in our own ‘mediaverse’ and join our communities. We choose to connect, or not.
At the core of our ‘mediaverse’ is a constant personal reinvention of the past and present. Live discussions follow their own trajectories, oblivious to the original comment, but connected through tenuous link, or the need to add to the commentary. Unconnected statements and stories become connected through conversational chains. Images old and new are uploaded. A square hovers over faces waiting to be tagged. Comments provide new backstories, change histories and provide alternative but temporary frames. It’s a fluid environment where truth travels as fast as untruth with no clear filters signposting anything real beyond the event and the product. And at the very centre of the ‘mediaverse’ is the individual made both event and product. An empty, silent noise in the chaos of it’s trivia. Is there any better representation of the career of David Bowie than social media?
The Next Day suffocated the flames of gossip by denying the fuel of information until, at the optimum moment, the actual second of release, the information was introduced. When the message emerged it sat at the eye of its own storm, mimicking the social media process.
As viral memes go Bowie’s return was of epidemic proportions and The Next Day subsequently became a Bowie image being tagged by its own histories and looking for ‘likes’ to provide new meanings. Bowie has become the ghost in his machine, his music a valueless piece of information.
A point made all the more evident by the free stream of the album on iTunes a week prior to its release. Effectively doing the opposite to the initial information flame suffocation and providing enough fuel to burn the fire out. All information must be free and music is just information… but who controls the information flow? At the core of this hugely political message is of course David Bowie, The Next Day is simply a way of addressing questions of information control.
Which brings me to the album itself and its challenge to the myths of Bowie’s music.
It’s a return to his old stuff…
With Bowie in total silence and therefore no quotes to hang onto all we had was the gossip about the new album (fitting in the Twitter age). And as soon as Tony Visconti likened the new album to Lodger it seemed the Bowiephiles were immediately satisfied. Lodger, the last of the Berlin albums, the one where Bowie and Eno indulged in their obsession with Talking Heads and tried out a few oblique strategies, some interesting sonic experiments and one or two enjoyable pop shapes. Of the much-lauded Berlin trilogy it’s the least enjoyable, but it’s also the album that pointed to his next stage, the art meets pop masterpiece of Scary Monsters and Super Creeps.
Visconti’s authenticating nod to Lodger proved to be a reference to the broad range of musical styles played on The Next Day rather than a comment on the actual sound, production or theme of the album. Yet it does hold a very strong connection to Lodger in that both albums were heralded by singles that bore little relation to the rest of the albums that followed. And both albums were trumpeted as ‘a return to classic Bowie’. In the case of Lodger lead off single ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ and its B-side, the stunning ‘Fantastic Voyage’, the latter especially had Bowiephiles salivating at the hope of a return to the songs and melodies of Hunky Dory. News stories and reviews even supported this mythical desire. But Lodger was nothing like Hunky Dory. And ‘Fantastic Voyage’ was nothing like Lodger. Lodger was more interested in moving forward.
‘Where Are We Now?’ was met with a similar reaction. A nostalgic, plaintive melody that marries the frailty of Robert Wyatt with a longing hookline. Lyrics talk of Bowie’s psyche during that most mythologized of all Bowie’s backstory, the Berlin era. It’s a thing of beauty, which indulged hopes of a return to those almost forgotten days of Ziggy. Simpler tunes from simpler times when pop stars only needed to challenge taboos of gender and sexuality to become the centre of a storm of noise. But ‘Where Are We Now?’ isn’t Ziggy. And neither is it The Next Day. In fact it’s an orphan of a song that’s lost in a community of chattering New York muso-muscle.
The album’s only real moment of lyrical nostalgia, ‘Where are we Now?’ is simply a fleeting status update. The rest of the album is a very different affair with its teeth-gnashing anger at the Catholic Church, politicians and war-mongers among many other targets. Lyrically The Next Day is the most direct album of his career. No cut-ups or pseudo-poetic metaphors, no starmen or astronauts here, instead he goes for numerous jugulars of the here and now. Ironically, despite his apparent silence, his disappearing from view, his seeming distance from the present, this is his most ‘present’ album ever. Lyrically at least.
But it’s not Bowie’s lyrics that people hook into first, it’s the actual songs. And here we can hear all of his favoured tricks. Which seems like an odd thing to say about an artist who has become known as pop’s greatest chameleon, an artist whose career has been defined by ch-ch-ch-changes. Surely he has no regulat ‘tricks’?
Which brings us to another Bowie myth, this one about time and movement forward.
Time, he flexes like a whore…
Bowie has been sold as an artist who at his best is future focused, moving relentlessly forward into new territories. Always the original and the best, ‘Often copied never quite equaled’ read the copy to his 1980s singles reissue series. In truth Bowie was never the modernist of that future focused drive, but a post-modern artist seizing from history to create a revisionist’s history. So his early albums were awash with musical and lyrical references to Dylan, The Stones, The Beatles, The Velvets, Iggy, in fact any and all of his heroes feature in the soundscape of Bowie in the London years.
By London years I mean his time living in London rather than the defunct record label. But this geographical reference is worth briefly looking at. Bowie’s career has become defined as much by musical styles as geographical locations of key recording studios, eg the Bromley, London, Berlin, Switzerland and New York eras. None of which hold up to investigation of course. The Berlin era for example would be better defined as the Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin and New York era as Bowie’s time spent in Berlin was actually relatively minimal. Furthermore Berlin is often discussed as a trilogy, but it also includes two Iggy Pop albums (The Idiot and Lust for Life) and arguably could also encompass Station to Station (but this is another discussion).
In fact the city that has most defined Bowie’s output since Ziggy Stardust has been New York. It’s this city that been the geographical spectre at the core of all of his work. The Berlin era may have sounded very different without his experience of Studio 54.
But, for ease of discussion, let’s say there is a clearly defined New York-era of Bowie albums, in the same way that there is a Berlin-era of albums linked through the geography of ideology rather than the geography of physical space. The New York-era includes four albums: Heathen, Reality, The Next Day, and the album that would have immediately pre-dated them had it not been withdrawn, Toy.
Written off as Bowie trawling through his old material for new inspiration what actually emerged from that album was the sound and structures that would define the albums that followed. Toy featured Bowie attempting to rediscover the essence of his own musical self. That initial spark that inspired him to write as opposed to those heroes he tried to emulate. As such it was his first album in which he overtly referenced himself as an influence.
Not that this was a new thing. He has always looked back to his own material for inspiration, but in a more covert way. So the hummed chorus melody of his 1968 hippie ditty ‘Ching-A-Ling’ turned up again three years later as the guitar, keyboard and vocal hook on ‘Saviour Machine’ from The Man Who Sold the World, and the chorus melody to ‘I am a Lazer’, a track he wrote and produced for The Astronettes in 1973, returned as the chorus melody to ‘Scream Like a Baby’ in 1980 on Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. It’s a trick repeated over and again in the Bowie catalogue, with his personal past continually recast in the present, and presented as the future. While being bolstered by numerous nods to those ever-present heroes.
The interesting feature of the New York-era is those heroes apparently disappearing into the distance, with the main source of reference becoming Bowie himself. And where Toy makes direct connections to Bowie’s earliest London years as an R&B mod, the sound he subsequently discovers most often recalls his own back catalogue since 1980’s Scary Monsters…!
This is especially notable on The Next Day. Despite excitable observations that the outro drum beat of ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’ echoes Ziggy’s ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’, or that ‘Love is Lost’ features the heavily gated snare sound that featured so heavily on Low, and the growing claims of the Scary Monsters-feel to the title track (although it is also very reminiscent of ‘Repetition’ from Lodger - I keep singing ‘Johnny is a man, and he’s bigger than you… etc over the opening bars), the majority of Bowie’s latest album actually owes its greatest debt to Tin Machine’s studio albums, as well as Never Let Me Down, Tonight, Outside, Black Tie White Noise and Earthling’s non-breakbeat tracks.
What The Next Day forces you to do then is reconsider many of Bowie’s most critically loathed albums of the last two decades. What’s more he redefines his New York project to be the product of a weightier body of work than all of his work up to the end of the 70s. If all of that early work was about Bowie on a journey of discovery, the later work is Bowie discovered.
So when the 65-year-old Bowie sings about train rides on Berlin he’s talking about another Bowie entirely. A Bowie who placed artifice and quotation at the heart of his authenticity, a man who courted conversation and demanded attention. The older Bowie places himself at the very centre of his ‘mediaverse’ as a blank space where image used to hang. Conversations happen around him and attention is focused on understanding who he really is now as he puzzles out where we are now?
The Next Day then is an album of status updates from a disappearing Bowie. Passing notes, bitter observations and angry messages wrapped up in a sound that is unmistakably post-70s Bowie.
As a self confessed Bowiephile I am obviously enjoying something like a brief but full on romance with The Next Day. But it’s forced me to return to old loves like Outside and Earthling, and to fully indulge in the previous fleeting flames like Never Let Me Down. As a body of work the four albums that make up the New York-era may not sparkle with the wide-eyed wonderment of the 70s output but they show Bowie embracing himself and no longer lifting the sheen from his heroes.
And yet, worryingly for the Bowie-as-himself argument, the track on The Next Day that offers the most interesting side to the man in his 60s is the closing track ‘Heat’, which sounds like contemporary Scott Walker singing over an arrangement that echoes Walker’s 80s album Climate of the Hunter. It’s out of place with the rest of the album, and the trio that preceded it, but it’s one of his finest pieces ever – despite its derivative nature.
So will the the future Mr Bowie be about himself or a return to the grounds of his heroes? Maybe we’ll have to wait another ten years for the answer, but what is certain is that if he records another album it won’t emerge in deafening but empty silence like this one.