David Bowie a tribute - Monolith Cocktail


Promising so much, David Bowie upped his game in the mid 90s. He threatened us with a new art decade but after two (in our opinion successful) reinventions he resorted back into the confines of statesman rock and pop. Vocally harangued at the time by critics and fans for the pretensions of Outside, his industrial bleak artistic murder mystery marked a return to his first love: contemporary art. In his reinvigorated role as Modern Painter magazine patron, correspondent and even hoaxer (part of the team that instigated the infamous Nat Tate debacle; the most famous American Abstract Expressionist that never existed), Bowie staged his conceptual comeback. I for one loved it. I even went to Wembley Arena in 1995 to catch the London leg of the tour – a bewildered and miffed audience smiled and clapped along until they realised that Bowie would not be performing his usual back catalogue tour de force.

Another leap, and Bowie in tattered Union Jack frock coat, embraced drum and bass for his 1997 Earthling LP. He would of course be goaded by many for his youth culture adoptions, but Earthling offered a vigorous, political and fiery platform for Bowie to vent his anger.

Faltering as the millennium loomed, even though Bowie was now the augur of the internet, soothsayer of the future, his next trio of albums would turn to face the past. Reflective, he returned to the melody and songwriting craft of yore as he composed three albums of solid but far from cutting edge material. It would be disingenuous to suggest that Heathen, Hours and Reality were disappointing; the march of time has allowed them to breath and unfurl their lyricism and gentle considered melodies slowly.

Taking it for granted that he would be with us forever, an omnipresent feature of the cultural landscape, Bowie’s health took a near fatal turn in 2004 as he suffered a heart attack after coming off stage. Reducing his schedule and commitments as he recuperated, Bowie made sporadic appearances, collaborating with various artists, from Scarlett Johansson to David Gilmour, The Arcade Fire and TV On The Radio, and all but retiring from playing live. You can never call it a comeback as such, but Bowie surprised everyone in 2013 with his most impressive songbook in a decade, The Next Day. Looking back with wistful fondness on his Berlin years with the teary-eyed plaintive ‘Where Are We Now?’, he was once again reunited with Tony Visconti.

Released with little fanfare, keeping critics on their toes, The Next Day was universally accepted as a nostalgic, straighter laced, rock album, with little in the way of gimmicks and distractions. As it is, this album sounded like the beginning of a final fond farewell. But it would be the recently released, last week, Blackstar that confounded and really caught all of us out. The curtain call, Bowie bowed out on a morose but emotively startling eulogy.

Death has always plagued the music of Bowie. As a young slip of a man in 1972 he covered Jacques Brel’s harrowing ‘My Death’, and the stench of a morbid and poetic curiosity for it has permeated throughout his work. Yet Blackstar felt unusually elegiac. It now seems obvious that this was a man facing the end; his final release for posterity. And that is where we end our four-part tribute. But dry those eyes, for below you will find the last haul of Bowie albums; from Outside to Blackstar.


1.Outside (Arista/BMG) 1995

Outside

With ‘five years’ remaining until the new millennium, Bowie, tapping into the anxiety and quest for spiritual relief, returned to his first passion: contemporary art.

Back with his most innovative collaborator, Brian Eno, he dredged the bottomless pit of morose and despair. Dreaming up a morbid tale of future sacrificial performance art, gone wild, and taboo breaking cybernetics he narrated a woeful diegesis through a series of ‘verbasier programmed’ characters.

Disturbing to say the least, our ‘cracked actor’ pitches an avant-garde ‘whodunnit?’, set in a parallel bleak world where the self-mutilated gestures of Günter Brus (the patriarchal figurehead of body art) and ‘the orgiastic mystery theatre’ of Hermann Nitsch have been taken to new, hyper, extremes of blood-letting.

Led by the investigative diary of art crime detective Nathan Adler, a cryptic cut-up of Burroughs/Burgess language is used to not just explain the circumstances that befell the poor victim Baby Grace, but also delve into the collective psyche.

Out on a limb musically, Bowie’s home life may have been content, yet something suddenly propelled him to bravely create a depressive requiem. Easily the best, if not most original, material since Scary Monsters, 1.Outside was entirely written in the studio as the band extemporized: motivated by Eno’s synonymous oblique strategy cards.

Scott Walker lost in cyberspace; the industrial melancholy is at its most anguished on ‘A Small Plot Of Land’ (a version was used on the, Bowie as Warhol starring, tragic biopic of Basquiat, directed by Julian Schnabel), yet a more reved-up, pummeling bombastic variant is used on ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ and ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ (perfectly playing out David Fincher’s Seven).

Leaving many fans bemused (as I myself witnessed on the Outside tour, the baying audience pleading for the greatest hits package), the philosophical snuff opus seemed puzzling to those familiar with the pop-lite Bowie. Thankfully Bowie cut loose the shackles of commerciality for a contemporary blast of shock and dread.

 

Decreed as the leading highlights of the album by the majority –

The Heart’s Filthy Lesson (single), Hallo Spaceboy (single), We Prick You

Pay attention to those often overlooked beauties –

A Small Plot Of Land, The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction, I’m Deranged



Earthling (BMG) 1997

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Remarkably even though these were the halcyon days of guitar-band driven, and nostalgic, Britpop, dance music, predominantly drum ‘n’ bass, was also basking in the glow. Thanks in some small part to the crossover success of the movement’s big players, Goldie and Roni Size.

Plucking objectively from his orbit of influences, Bowie adopted the drum ‘n’ bass principles for a dynamic, steely ‘textural diary’, both discordant but surprisingly melodic and erudite.

Embracing technology with gusto, Earthling would be digitally recorded, though all the skittish drum loops and bass lines would be performed live first before being cut-up to fit around Bowie’s arrangements at a later date.

Recorded on the cusp of a great change politically, Earthling’s concerns and observational objections were written before the tidal change in UK government. However those postulations, from an artist living aboard in New York, spoke more about America, or to be exact, its foreign policy, both militarily and culturally. ‘Dead Man Walking’, taken from death row, and the sardonic harsh rebuke ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’ (originally recorded for 1.Outside with Eno) alluded to the polymath’s discomfort with that adopted home; especially the ‘McDonalds’ effect of capitalist colonialism.

Of curse, standing like the bulldog spirited equivalent of a figure from Caspar David Friedrich’s nationalistic landscape paintings, Bowie with his back to the audience gazes out onto the green and pleasant English countryside: his natural embryonic home. Wearing an Alexander McQueen designed (cool Britannia ruled the waves after all) Union Jack coat, Bowie’s frayed and battered garment is a sad reflection of the exuberant excitement of Pete Townshend’s heady mod era version.

Appropriating the Prodigy and Underworld, and fashioning veiled, nuanced auguries on ‘Battle Of Britain (The Letter)’, his heart still belongs to Blighty.

Almost without a blemish, the album is Bowie’s most accomplished and challenging work, alongside Outside. It would however mark a slow decadence into a more smoother, mature sound that would guide the artist through the late 90s and into the noughties.

 

Decreed as the leading highlights of the album by the majority –

Little Wonder (single), Battle Of Britain (The Letter), Dead Man Walking (single), I’m Afraid Of Americans (single)

Pay attention to those often overlooked beauties –

Looking For Satellites, Seven Years In Tibet



Hours… (Virgin) 1999

Hours

Cradled in the youthful luminosity of a ‘born again’, flowing locks, Bowie’s damaged enervated Earthling self lies exhausted. Its purpose served, Earthling’s probing dynamism and confrontational cyber style attack was toned down for a softer, meditative approach, on the eve of a new millennium.

Facing the tides of change and his own mortality (again), Bowie sought solace from his back catalogue (an exercise repeated recently on The Next Day).

Wallowing in a self-pitted state of pained irreverence; the gentler incarnation was separated into the roles of mature, downcast, romantic and internet crusader: a spirit of collaboration with fans via his personal BowieNet hub called for lyrical inspiration, the lucky winner’s contribution appearing on the song ‘What’s Really Happening’.

The lion’s share of the Hours… set list was recycled from a soundtrack that both Bowie and his tenure sparring partner Reeves Gabrels had composed for future dystopian online game, Omikron – The Nomad Soul. Surprisingly this material was quite commercial and light, though that sophisticated ‘Trojan horse’ method of making melancholic and sad themes palatable, worked extremely well on the paean to aging and lovelorn memories, ‘Thursday’s Child’. A congruous series of laments follow suit, with wistful, weeping guitar laden forlorn ditties such as ‘Something In The Air’ and ‘Survive’.

Appropriating his own earlier work, the mooning Americana twanged malady ‘I’m Dreaming My Life’ and gnarling stutter riff ‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’ (referencing The Stooges ‘Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell’), sound like lost Tin Machine recordings, whilst stirring vignette ‘Brilliant Adventure’, sounds like a passage of contemplative spiritualism from the ‘Moss Garden’ of Heroes.

Playing it safe – though a punctilious, methodical Bowie is better than no Bowie at all – our ersatz starman stuck to nostalgia.

 

Decreed as the leading highlights of the album by the majority –

Thursday’s Child (single), Seven (single), The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell (single)

 

Pay attention to those often overlooked beauties –

Something In The Air, Brilliant Adventure



Heathen (ISO/Columbia) 2002

Heathen

Despite the commentators and critic’s attempts to project their own neurosis of emptiness upon the post 9/11 Heathen, Bowie insisted that he had no intention of directly addressing that momentous event. Of course it’s inconceivable that the Twin Towers of doom couldn’t have dented or made an impact on his psyche, after all he lived closer enough to ground zero.

But most of the material had already been recorded prior to this, with songs taken from his nostalgic Pin Ups for the twenty first century, Toy album: a reworking of lesser known ditties, blue eyed soul and vaudeville from the mid 60s to early 70s, which included ‘In The Heat Of The Morning’, ‘Conversation Piece’ and even the old Davy Jones and The Lower Third single, ‘You’ve Got A Habit’.

Never officially released, this saccharine, rose-tinted look back to fonder, innocent times, was another attempt by Bowie to wallow in the past. The anxiety of a new millennium, ‘degradation of mankind’ and basic need for meaning prompted our troubled polymath to write some elegiac and emotional laments; his best for a number of years. In part the return of Tony Visconti as co-producer, spurred Bowie on to once again push the envelope, though Heathen was still only a moderate shadow of the bolder RCA epoch. Visconti’s gilded production values nudged the ambient lilting washes, attentive horns, tender strings and vapour trail effects in the right direction.

Hardly lacking culture or principles, Bowie’s Heathen appellation rings truer to the word’s other meaning, ‘a person who doesn’t belong to a widely held religion.’ In a manner the plaintive and layered lyrics fumble in a vacuum of confusion, cast adrift of answers and spiritualism.

The album begins well with the opening theatric, hallowed synth requiem of ‘Sunday’; a glimmer of the nuanced quality found back in the 70s.

The Pixies (‘Cactus’) and UFOddity, Norman Carl Odam (the spark for Ziggy Stardust), supply the covers, the last of those stardust cowboy voyages into the ether, ‘I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship’, given a real ham performance.

Surprisingly the stirring waltz like weepy to memories, ‘Slip Away’ (originally earmarked for Toy, under the title of ‘Uncle Floyd’) has an air of Chrissie Hynde about it, especially in the bridge’s melody.

A reunion with Pete Townshend (last heard contributing to ‘Because You’re Young’ from Scary Monsters) on the understated, but melodically sweet, ‘Slow Burn’ takes time to disrobe its charms whereas the glib addition of David Grohl’s unmemorable guitar waffle on Neil Young’s 1968 paean, ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, seems a populist stab at endearing Bowie to the stadium rock crowd.

Progressively superior to Hours… in every way, the aching heart of Bowie awakened from lethargy, demanding a ‘better future’.

 

Decreed as the leading highlights of the album by the majority –

Cactus, Slip Away, Afraid, A Better Future, Everyone Say ‘Hi’ (single)

Pay attention to those often overlooked beauties –

Sunday, Slow Burn



Reality (ISO/Columbia) 2003

Reality

Making the most of his creative flow, Bowie’s next critically assiduous, soul-searching suite would draw from the ‘oil well’ of despair.

The hyper ‘reality’ that permeated throughout this sophisticated album reflected a woeful climate, specifically the unfolding drama in the Middle East. Allusions to neocon diplomacy, nepotism of the most colonially threatening kind and the crescent of Islam are interspersed with more pining romanticized themes of loss.

Assembling a ‘dream team’, Bowie’s backing group once again swelled with the talents of Mike Garson (piano), Tony Visconti (production duties), Earl Slick (guitar) and Carlos Alomar (guitar) – both veterans of Young Americans. Slick and Visconti would of course go onto to form part of The Next Day recording hub.

That quality and old camaraderie proved every bit as tightly dynamic, Reality unequivocally the thin white duke’s best work since Earthlings.

Again, Bowie insists on appropriating or at least resorting to past endeavors, recalling Outside on his sardonic hustled cover of Jonathan Richman’s ‘Pablo Picasso’; Tonight on the samba weepie ‘Days’; and Black Tie White Noise on the thinly veiled indicative Dick Cheney putdown, ‘Fall Dog Bombs The Moon’: Bowie at his bleakest; “The blackest of years that have no sound, no shape, no depth, no underground/What a dog!’

An augury of what was to follow in 2013, the thumping kickdrum, rollicking anthem ‘Never Get Old’ has a resounding statement of intent from the artist: “Never ever gonna get old!” In character he may be, but Bowie’s cry against mortality is a personal one, echoed in the present. Unfortunately bowing to the so-called market forces – regardless of artistic values and sanctimonious vitriol, he always had an eye for making dough – Bowie lent the tune to mineral water brand Vittel, appearing in an advert which has an uncanny resonance with the recent ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ video.

For various reasons outside his control, namely the poor sods heart attack, Bowie had to wait eight years to produce another volume of reactionary post-millennium blues. The Next Day, despite the decade-long absence from recording, picks up where Reality left off.

 

Decreed as the leading highlights of the album by the majority –

New Killer Star (single), Pablo Picasso, Never Get Old (single), Reality

Pay attention to those often overlooked beauties –

She’ll Drive The Big Car, Try Some Buy Some



The Next Day (ISO/Columbia) 2013

The-Next-Day

The Flaming Lips cheekily entitled a song ‘Is David Bowie Dying?’ in 2012, a glib reference to the constant chatter and conniption ‘concern’ that’s followed the ‘thin white pensioner’ around since his heart attack in 2004. Forget all the curatorships, appearances and guest spots, which Bowie has since carried out, many of us have already talked him into an early grave.

Sure, The Next Day swells with morose reflections and speaks of mortality; after all he is a survivor, part of the fortunate baby boomer generation who rewrote the rules and played fast and loose with the establishment, yet they are now benefactors of a culture that still idolizes its stars in their dotage: The old order hanging on for dear life.

Perhaps we expect Brian Eno and Tony Visconti to still be around, but Iggy? This is the paradox, because despite the obvious iconic casualties who died in their Byronic youth, Bowie and his peers who dabbled just as much and dangerously, have made it: the aging winners, still relevant and still able to command the public’s attention.

Less an obituary, more a testament to endurance, this latest cryptic trove of unrequited loss, fame and choked back reminiscence is attributed to a cast of damaged and forlorn psyches: from a WWII veteran desert rat soldier to the protagonist of a High School shooting.

Appropriation of not just his own revered image – Jonathan Barnbrook subverts the iconic Heroes posed cover, referencing Bowie’s Berlin years, a constant theme throughout – but also his past musical glories, our contemplative host seems to be far too coy and aware of his own stature; the decade lay-off prompting Bowie to reintroduce us to the back catalogue as though we’d forgotten it.

Scrutinized to the nth degree, The Next Day’s real achievement is its secrecy and how with such a large cast of musicians and contributors that Bowie kept his two-year project under wraps in an, somnambulist endorsed, privacy-free Internet world.

Marketed in what first appeared as an almost caviler, ‘out-of-the-blue’, fashion the album’s precursor elegiac Berlin travelogue, ‘Where Are We Now?’, wept openly upon the public, followed by the musings on our contradictory relationship with celebratory, ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’, both released without prior warning.

Taking a leaf out of his, arguably, biggest influence Scott Walker’s own imposed locked away method of making music, Bowie wished to remain in a sort of remote exile, avoiding interviews, performances and public appearances, instead putting all his effort and belief into occasional musical edicts. Observing us from a distance, Bowie ponders from a relaxed state of privilege, amused at his own luck and survival.

 

Decreed as the leading highlights of the album by the majority –

The Stars (Are Out Tonight) (single), Where Are We Now (single), The Boss Of Me, Heat

Pay attention to those often overlooked beauties –

Valentine’s Day, If You Can See Me, Heat



‘★’   (ISO/RCA) 2016

Blackstar cover art - Monolith Cocktail

With hindsight, ‘★’ now seems an obvious epitaph. The clues where all there. The afterlife, resurrection and a string of final farewells hang over the album like a ticking countdown to David Bowie’s death. He did it all of course with a grand flourish, and in some cases, beautifully. Not wholly plaintive and morose then, his eulogy dared to offer up intriguing and ambiguous thoughts. The music itself both referencing some of his most experimental and edgy work, from Diamond Dogs to Outside, and up until the last, daring enough to experiment as he adopted a West Village jazz troupe to play rock music in off-kilter, cerebral manner.

If it is true, Brian Eno’s tribute in recent days referred to a possible return to the duos Outside project: “About a year ago, we started talking about Outside – the last album we worked on together,” Eno wrote. “We both liked that album a lot and felt that it had fallen through the cracks. We talked about revisiting it, taking it somewhere new. I was looking forward to that.” Muted it seems as a serious potential, the often morbid, avant-garde and industrial art school concept album feels like it did seep into the fabric of, or at least influence  ‘★’ to some extent. I for one will be gutted that he never made it. Cancer got there first. And so we will never know how that Eno reunion would have turned out.

Looking back now, only actually a week on, at my review I was properly a little harsh on poor Bowie. Songs I mostly dismissed have seduced me since. Though, as I unfortunately pointed out, it did feel like an eulogy and was obsessed with mortality. And now we all know why. Yet I will stand by it, as Bowie’s death shouldn’t change, what I believe was a balanced critique.

So here it is again in full in case you missed it or need reminding:

 

Still preoccupied with that old messiah complex and the anxieties of the times, David Bowie unveils his latest ode to resurrection ★ (pronounced Blackstar). Preoccupied with jazz, though as we’re told like a mantra, “This isn’t a jazz album. Its a rock album played by jazz musicians”. There is a fundamental difference. Off-kilter leanings and daft nuances from the progressive jazz catalogue permeate this album, but that is all. There is no sudden embrace of be or hard bop, or spiritual, modal or psychedelic consciousness. There isn’t even any traces of that much maligned and cringe worthy offshoot “fusion”. Instead, Bowie’s recently recruited hip West Village jazz troupe adds an inventive, fresh lilt to the favoured rock and pop music tropes to create something unique. It shouldn’t come as a surprise however, his very first musical stirrings being on the saxophone as the young Mod about town in the early 60s before he changed his name from the one his mother gave him, David (Davy) Jones, to the immortal Bowie. The long hairs of the psychedelic age beckoned and Bowie cut loose the restraints of jazz to wear dresses, take on mime and reinvent himself as a cerebral vaudeville troubadour.

He raises, he soars and than he falls, Bowie’s usual cycle of creativity builds and than wears out each new character he adopts. Yet left to his own devices, somewhere out in a metaphysical space, Major Tom is still causing Bowie sleepless nights it seems. The title track from his ‘Wide Eyed Boy’ meets Outside, ‘Blackstar’, was accompanied by a video that featured an unnamed astronaut, fallen and lain dormant covered in dust in Bowie’s apocalyptic cryptic world. Whether he comes to bury old ghosts or inject life into them, the leitmotif of resurrection once again looms large. Mortality preys upon his mind, and why wouldn’t it, as his own trifles with death and the rate of ageing starts to take its toll. Despite the shuffling but tight jazz drum breaks and mourning on a New York dock scene saxophone, these elements are attentive, dampened even, and composed. The title track a flat beat ten-minute minor opus, rich with hints of Black Tie White Noise, Diamond Dogs (6:50 minutes in) and some melodious reverent classicism, is a song in more or less three parts. Strewn with those obligatory clues and references (which have nothing to do with ISIL and the present Syrian crisis we’re told) it is an ambitious if ambiguous start, and like many songs from the Bowie cannon, its cunning and complexity unveils itself on repeated plays.

So far meeting with worldwide acclaim form critics – the ones allowed to actually hear the LP in its entirety before the official release – Blackstar is musically an improvement on the straighter laced rock songbook of The Next Day. That record is now considered a songbook of nostalgic reminisces; yet he apes if not carries on with the same concerns on this short – more a Station To Station in length and track numbers – follow up. He has even brought back or decided to return and finish the story of The Man Who Fell To Earth, revisiting the tragic alien stuck in exile figure of Thomas Jerome Newton for a Broadway play entitled Lazarus – see, again with the resurrections! Stupefied with the vices and almost resigned languid resentments of Earth, Walter Tevis’s original character made pallid flesh by Bowie in Nicholas Roeg’s stunning, evocative movie adaptation, was last seen in a near somnolent state more or less beaten, his mission failed and his love ones dying in the drought that parched his native homeland. The second track to be shared from the album, Lazarus features that recurring sweetly forlorn saxophone – found throughout the back catalogue -played over a maudlin, and at first very stark, indulgent wallowing backing track. With usual ambiguity, Bowie once again croons about scars, heaven and breaking free, his slow building indulgence unfurling its depth and maladies at a crawl. Closer to Heathen and Reality, Lazarus is influenced to a degree by the critics darlings of the music scene Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips but sounds more like TV On The Radio and The XX.

Already gaining airplay and floating around for a while, ‘Tis A Pity She Is A Whore’ is golden Bowie, and the track that gave life to the rumours of his acquired penchant for jazz. Riffing on the infamous 17th century John Ford tragedy of the same name, a forlorn crooning Bowie sings oblique lines over a plaintive saxophone and heavy drum barrage on the fieriest track from the album. In a similar mode, a new punchier version of 2014’s ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ is a less shaky untethered rock and speedy break beat hurtling improvement. And once again features a resigned downcast Bowie taking on the role of a sucker-punched sap. This leaves a trio of material that hasn’t until the album’s release been aired or teased out over the net. ‘Girl Loves Me’ has a harassed Bowie yodelling, wistfully sighing and yearning with his Berlin trilogy style vocals to a methodical striding march, as he converses in a mix of Polari and A Clockwork Orange. Quite a change in tempo and style, ‘Dollar Days’ is again a reflective take, perhaps even a regrettable lament. Plaintive in a ballad style, Bowie almost eulogising, the lyrics are delivered and beautifully caressed. In a similar vein, the album’s finale ‘I Can’t Give You Everything’ is another wistful dip back into the Black Tie White Noise album. Repeating a most poetic set of verses that both unravel and confound, it is a majestic, diaphanous if sad curtain call.

 

Despite the gloom, Bowie is still a sprightly creative artist, celebrating his 69th birthday with a new album that stretches the imagination and puts most of his peers to shame. Of course, it still isn’t as daemonic, unsettling and untethered to the boundaries of pop and rock music as we’re led to believe; Scott Walker this ain’t, Bowie still transmogrifying his Crowley/Kabbalah/Nietzsche/Occult/Norse and beyond cycle of references into a more sellable pop format no matter how many genres he absorbs. Walker has gone into the abyss in comparison and almost removed any earthly links to melody and song structure. Can the same be said for Bowie despite his recent long-winded jazz influenced opuses?

Saying that, this could be the most pure, at least concerned, version of Bowie yet. Resurrected free of his characterisations, the gilded “Blackstar” is just as uneasy and scared at the anxieties, stresses and daunting prospects of the future as the rest of us. Fame, celebratory is mere smoke after all and offers little in the way of comfort and safety in the face of the impending end times. Yet despite being easily his best album since Earthling, Blackstar is still underwhelming and falls short of being a classic. It isn’t even as experimental as Outside, which is a criminally underrated album, and lacks a real punch. But it is moving in the right direction, and instead of listening to those younger hip cats, he’d be better off paying more attention to that other famous Capricorn Scott Walker.



A Celebration Part 1

David Bowie tribute Monolith Cocktail



Part 2

Young Americans



Part 3

Let's Dance



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