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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
New York Times MAY 6, 2013 - by Simon Reynolds
THE SINGER WHO FELL TO EARTH
On The Stars (Are Out Tonight), the new single from David Bowie's comeback album, The Next Day, one line jumps out: "We will never be rid of these stars." In the video Mr. Bowie and the actress Tilda Swinton play an elderly couple persecuted by a pair of vampiric stars, who stalk them, invade their house and manipulate them like marionettes. But the song itself is less literal. It portrays celebrities as members of an overlord class who "burn you with their radiant smiles" but also as faintly pitiable creatures, jealous of the quiet, grounded lives of ordinary folk. "But I hope they live forever," Mr. Bowie sings, a nod to the notion of fame as immortality, a compensation for all the damage and delusion that comes with the territory.
Fame and death are closely braided themes shadowing The Next Day, which is receiving acclaim as Mr. Bowie's strongest album in decades. Imagery of decay, debility and dejection pervade the record: "Here am I / Not quite dead / My body left to rot in a hollow tree," Mr. Bowie sings on the title track. For most of the twenty-first century Mr. Bowie had disappeared from view, even as the glam theatricality and gender-bending he pioneered was dominating pop through figures like Lady Gaga. Most assumed that he'd effectively retired, physically exhausted after a major heart attack and surgery in 2004, creatively spent after four decades of self-reinvention. But in a brilliantly organised stealth attack he returned without warning in January with the wistful single Where Are We Now?, the herald for The Next Day, which is out on Columbia on Tuesday.
The album, his first in a decade, asserts Mr. Bowie's continued relevance as a musician and songwriter. Dark in theme and surprisingly harsh sounding, The Next Day nods to high points in his past, notably Lodger, from 1979, but the lyrics are unusually direct and unflinching for an artist who has often hidden behind masks or wrapped bleakness in obliqueness. Meanwhile Mr. Bowie's stature in pop history as the performer who most convincingly bridged the gap between art and rock is being shored up by David Bowie Is, a retrospective opening March 23 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, a celebration of his mastery of all the non-audio aspects of pop, including clothes, stage sets, record artwork and video.
With The Stars, a superstar's critique of celebrity culture could be taken as somewhat hypocritical of course. Mr. Bowie has always had an ambivalent attitude toward fame. His biggest American hit of the 1970s, Fame, was a harrowing dispatch from inside the paranoid bubble of stardom. He's often returned to the subject, as with his 1999 album Hours..., an exploration of "fame as injury", in the words of the Bowieologist Nick Stevenson, and the new album's (You Will) Set The Earth On Fire, the sales pitch of a Svengali to a potential protégé. Mr. Bowie's career has been governed by a bipolar rhythm, alternating between relentless pursuit of the limelight and shattered retreat from it. Now, after his longest musical break ever, this sixty-six-year old Englishman and New York resident is back for what could well be his last blast, the supernova of his stardom.
Yet while Mr. Bowie himself receded for the past decade, the Bowie-esque has been omnipresent. After the '90s, a period dominated by the grit and authenticity of grunge and gangsta rap, the 2000s saw the return of artifice and glitter. The things that Mr. Bowie explored to the hilt, alongside his fellow glam rockers like Roxy Music and Alice Cooper, during the early '70s - over-the-top theatricality and staging, extremist fashion and sexual androgyny - became defining principles of twenty-first-century pop. Lady Gaga is the most visible of his inheritors, with her freaky costumes and her gender games (the male alter ego Jo Calderone; the artfully concocted rumor that she's a hermaphrodite). Adam Lambert, the American Idol graduate, called his first major tour Glam Nation. Beyoncé made a Ziggy Stardust-like gambit by creating the persona Sasha Fierce as a vehicle for her walk-on-the-wild-side impulses. Above all there's Nicki Minaj, whose guises include the gay male Roman Zolanski and the ultra-feminine cartoon she calls Barbie. While it's unlikely that Ms. Minaj is directly influenced by Mr. Bowie, the parallels between his serial personas and her constant image changes are clear. As a host on the music channel Fuse put it, "She says she's just being herself, but who she is changes every day."
Among Mr. Bowie's most famous pronouncements early in his career were "I feel like an actor when I'm onstage, rather than a rock artist," and "If anything, maybe I've helped establish that rock 'n' roll is a pose." Before Mr. Bowie came along, rock defined itself against showbiz and Hollywood. There was supposed to be a more-or-less direct correspondence between the performer and his real-life personality. But Mr. Bowie talked about playing characters, such as the rock god Ziggy Stardust, or the cold, remote Thin White Duke. Like a movie star taking on different roles that refract a fundamental, unchanging charisma, Mr. Bowie, in his heyday, was paradoxically the same and yet different each time he came before the public with a new album and tour.
Mr. Bowie embraced metamorphosis from the start. In the mid-'60s he hopped through five bands and many styles and looks before connecting with the public around 1969. Once his career took off, the shape shifting took on a new urgency. Popular taste is fickle, but Mr. Bowie circumvented pop's cruel turnover by turning himself into the New Thing, again and again. As he said in 1977: "My policy has been that as soon as a system or process works, it's out of date. I move on to another area." Perhaps the fashion world has so lionised Mr. Bowie (Gucci is a sponsor of the London exhibition) because he has so thoroughly assimilated fashion's own logic of remorseless supercession.
But there's more to Mr. Bowie's compulsive changeability than a career strategy. What he was really developing during the '70s was a new postmodern psychology based around flux and mutability. His great precursor and influence here was Warhol, the inspiration for his 1971 song Andy Warhol and a role Mr. Bowie would actually play in the 1996 biopic Basquiat, Analysing Warhol, the art critic Donald Kuspit wrote of "the protean artist-self with no core" - a description that could also fit Mr. Bowie.
But living like a cross between a chameleon and a magpie (Mr. Bowie is a voracious assimilator of influences) has its downsides. Read the vintage interviews, and it's striking how often intimations of hollowness occur, the sense of a man who outwardly appears super-confident but who battles feelings of self-loathing and doubt. "When I saw a quality in someone that I liked, I used it later as if it were my own"; "I'm not an innovator. I'm really just a Photostat machine. I pour out what has already been fed in." It seems as if "a continuing, returning feeling of inadequacy over what I've done" has helped propel the restless remaking of sound and style.
Perusing David Bowie Is (V&A Publishing, distributed by Abrams), the exhibition's catalog, with its procession of poses and costumes and weighty essays tracking the cross-references to pop culture and high art, you get a sense of how much hard work it took to be Mr. Bowie. Speaking of "the gruelling nature" of Mr. Bowie's self-reinvention, the director Julien Temple, who made videos for him and directed him in the 1986 movie Absolute Beginners, said, "It takes its toll, psychically."
During the '90s Mr. Bowie did seem to be running close to empty. For a while he subsumed himself in the collective identity of a hard rock band, Tin Machine. Then he tried reverting to successful stages of his career. For Black Tie White Noise, Mr. Bowie reunited with Nile Rodgers of Chic, the producer of Mr. Bowie's 1983 blockbuster, Let's Dance. For the adventurous but confused Outside, he re-enlisted Brian Eno, his foil during an experimental late-'70s Berlin period. Switching strategy, Mr. Bowie refuelled using cutting-edge electronic dance ideas on Earthling, an endearing if semi-successful dabble in drum and bass. And in the early 2000s he regrouped with Tony Visconti, the producer of most of his '70s albums, for Heathen and Reality, records on which he settled into an elder statesman role.
The Next Day has Mr. Visconti at the helm again, but this time Mr. Bowie seems galvanised by a desperate energy that overrides the frailty palpable in his haggard vocals. "I gaze in defeat at the stars in the night / The light in my life burned away / There will be no tomorrow," he sings in How Does The Grass Grow?, one of several songs building on the overdriven guitar clangor of Lodger and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), from 1980. Some of the morbidity - references to "a room full of bloody history" in You Feel So Lonely You Could Die - may be influenced by books on medieval tyrants that Mr. Bowie has reportedly been reading. But elsewhere the imagery seems inspired by his own brush with mortality.
The Grim Reaper is no stranger to the Bowie songbook. In his Ziggy guise he performed Jacques Brel's My Death and Mr. Bowie's hit Ashes To Ashes derives its title from a burial service. The Hearts Filthy Lesson on Outside addresses "the fact that life is finite," Mr. Bowie has said. "That realisation, when it comes, usually later in life, can either be a really daunting prospect or it makes things a lot clearer." But judging by The Next Day, Mr. Bowie's close encounter of the near-fatal kind has only muddied things. There is little evidence of serenity or enlightenment. Facing the final curtain the singer seems exposed as rarely before, his uncertainty and disorientation no longer couched in allegory or elegantly stylised.
The climactic song Heat pays homage to the existentialist balladry of Scott Walker, who covered My Death before Mr. Bowie and whose own work includes songs about the abjection of the body and about dictators like Ceausescu. "My father ran the prison," Mr. Bowie intones enigmatically, moving through ominous lines about missions grown dark and worlds ending, before confessing "I don't know who I am," and "I am a seer / But I am a liar."
Warhol "superstitiously believed" that fame could keep death at bay, Mr. Kuspit argues. When Mr. Bowie declares, "I hope they live forever" in The Stars, is this a gesture of bitter solidarity with "the dead ones and the living," all those stars who believed, still believe, in fame as salvation?
You can reinvent yourself over and over, but Death, the Great Uninventor, will catch up. The naked torment of that apprehension has fuelled Mr. Bowie's twilight masterpiece.