Between 1970 and 1980, David Bowie released the following 12 studio records:
THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD
THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS
STATION TO STATION
Scorecard for the above:
4 masterpieces (HUNKY DORY, ZIGGY, STATION TO STATION, LOW)
3 great albums (ALADDIN SANE, “HEROES,” LODGER)
4 very good albums (THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD, DIAMOND DOGS, YOUNG AMERICANS, SCARY MONSTERS)
(PIN-UPS, a delightful album of covers, is exempted from this discussion.)
Bowie has done post-1980 work that is, in parts, as interesting, innovative, and challenging as anything he did in the 70’s (parts of the Tin Machine records, OUTSIDE, and HEATHEN, especially). But his reputation as one of rock’s greatest stars rests in that incandescent run from the 1970’s.
Which brings us to THE NEXT DAY, which, among many other things, is the non-1970’s David Bowie record which FEELS and SOUNDS most like a 1970’s David Bowie record. It’s provocative, tuneful, filled with irresistible hooks and memorable lines. It’s the record of an old man, but not one who’s preaching wisdom from a mountaintop. Bowie’s personae here range from acidic resignation through raging fury to haunted self-doubt.
And yet it doesn’t matter. Not at all. Bowie’s record, as accomplished and fascinating as it is, just doesn’t matter. And that’s largely because music doesn’t matter anymore.
There is no band or solo artist alive today whose new records command the attention, sense of anticipation, and cumulative pop-cultural mind-share that rock stars of yore (beginning in the late 60’s) commanded. Music today occupies a far narrower niche than it did when new records by The Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, and Bowie, et al, were milestone rite-of-passage-style EVENTS.
All of which, in a weird way, makes me love THE NEXT DAY even more, while noting its irrelevance. Bowie’s newest rock record is as obscure as a poetry reading or a sparsely-attended gallery opening. Not one of these songs will be on the tips of everyone’s tongues for years like “Rebel Rebel” was; not one of them will confound the pop cognoscenti like Side 2 of LOW did.
And so, ultimately, you could say about THE NEXT DAY that this new tune echoes that one on “HEROES,” or that the sax on this record is a buzzing, sexy, honking beast, or that most of these songs not only have hooky choruses, they also have actual, musically integral BRIDGES, for chrissakes … but its most accurate description may be that it is: quaint.
A really good old-timey record that will be heard by relatively few made by a old guy who thinks he still has things to say about how we live today.
There’s a poignance to that which makes me wonder: why did David Bowie make a record at all, at this point in his life? He’s too smart not to know how the landscape has changed. And yet he soldiered on, as if it were 1978, and released an album of new material as if it mattered. Why?
It’s not like he made a difficult, arcane record. He did not write an ambient opus or dabble in post-modern electronica. He recorded an album of Bowie-esque pop-rock songs … expecting who, exactly, to listen to it?
Perhaps at this point, Bowie is simply playing the long game. Has decided he’s still got something to say, and has the means to say it. It’s what he does, after all, make pop records. He “gets” the lay of the land, the new digital world order, and is just working, just tilling the soil, trying to lay good seed and hope that one day, some day, someone will come along and appreciate the fruits of his labor.
Which, ultimately, of course, is what all of us in the “art” game do: challenge ourselves, work hard, worry, and keep our fingers crossed. Why should David Bowie be any different?