Changes: What I Learned From Listening To Every David Bowie Album
I’m not a woman of resolutions. Usually, I start every year with lofty ambitions and goals that seem reasonably realistic yet quickly fall by the wayside once real life and my own habits of laziness kick in. Countless novels go unfinished, the promises of holidays away consistently broken, and at some point in the future I will have to accept that I’ll probably never take up that exciting new hobby. Still, even someone as easily demoralised as myself enjoys a challenge now and then, which proved to be a great motivator for the beginning of 2017, a year that held such promise after the prior 12 months of sheer agony. I wanted a project, something ambitious but not impossible, and within the parameters of my existing interests. As a woman who loves the things she does and will revisit them over and over, I frequently struggle to extract myself from that alluring comfort zone. This is a particular problem when it comes to music, a constant in my life that’s always taken a back seat in fervent passion to my love of literature and cinema. I buy on average one new album a year, I don’t use Spotify, I couldn’t care less about the Top 40 hit parade or the hot young indies of the moment, yet I still listen to music every day. It usually ends up being the song of the day that I will listen to on repeat until I get sick of it and ignore it for a few years, or the same series of albums in constant rotation: Alive 2007 by Daft Punk, my favourite album of all time; ABBA Gold; The first two Franz Ferdinand albums, Trouble in Paradise by La Roux; and, of course, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie.
Bowie has been a constant of my life. He was the artist passed down to me by my grandmother, who ensured all of her kids, grandkids and great grandkids owned Labyrinth on video or DVD. He was the other guy on Under Pressure, my favourite song ever, and someone who just seemed to be everywhere and be anyone. It was Bowie who made me realise how much artists could evolve over the years, adopting images and characters so radically different from their predecessors that I struggled to see them as the creations of one man. Everyone in my family, with their disparate interests and clashing tastes, loved Bowie in some iteration. He was weird and cool and sexy and impossible, and I loved him.
When he died last year, a time that already feels decades old, I put off buying what ended up being his final album, Blackstar. It felt too soon, too dark for the moment when all I wanted to do was blubber at my desk job while listening to Sound and Vision. BBC Radio 6, the station choice of my then-bosses, dedicated the entire day of the announcement of his death to reminiscing about the legend in-between an array of songs he wrote, sang, inspired and covered. I’d always considered myself a big fan, but that time revealed how little of his work I truly knew. Why try the unfamiliar when Ziggy Stardust is there? I knew what made me happy.
The next year, I set myself a relatively simple resolution: Listen to all of David Bowie’s studio albums. 25 albums, starting in 1967 and ending 49 years later, plus the soundtracks to Labyrinth and The Buddha of Suburbia, and yes, the Tin Machine stuff. I wouldn’t listen to them in order, but I would leave Blackstar to the end, as he did. One extraordinary lifetime over one year. Think Eat Pray Love with less rich white lady self-indulgence and more isolation.
What I learned was that he was good. Really good. Hardly the revelation of the century, but listening to the familiar with clearer ears and sharper focus made the old feel new. Since I already owned the CDs, I started with Ziggy Stardust, an album that’s scored many a late night homework scramble, and Low, my other personal favourite of his work. Listening to the work that’s been overplayed, covered by everyone and appeared on advertisements for anything that paid the price brought the wind back to my sails. You hear the story better, the compositions reveal their staggering genius, and what seems so normal now, in the jingle-jangle aftermath of his life and influence, reminds you of how truly barmy this all was at the time. Ziggy Stardust is a hallucination of immense darkness, pure pretension that completely earns it. Low is robot-rock before Daft Punk’s time, the chilly starkness of a space opera where humans don’t exist. As someone who tends to treat music as convenient background noise, my Bowie resolution brought my mind back to seeing music as something worthy of my full attention.
I learned that I liked to be surprised. I’d never touched his ’90s period, partly because I’d heard enough people dismiss the decade as a bad time for the musician. There’s even a joke on The Venture Bros. where Bowie, the Sovereign of super-villainy, asks if Hours… was too little, too late (his henchman responds that no, that was Tim Machine). I started with Earthling, a drum and bass piece, so achingly of its time, that felt like a love letter to Trent Reznor. It wasn’t for me but it surprised me that Bowie, the zeitgeist pusher of our time, had so gleefully thrown himself into the music of the era and followed behind the bright young kids of the day. This was Bowie as student, whereas 1. Outside was Bowie as a leader, back to his pedestal and showing how wholly weird he could be. It’s a concept album, like much of his earlier work, but on a scale so overwhelming that I’m surprised such an album goes oft-ignored. If you’re going to return to being an outsider again, why not do it all the way? Hours definitely was underrated, but it wasn’t a patch on Heathen, which became an instant new favourite for me.
I learned that such goodness became more satisfying to experience, and greater achievements to appreciate, when I listened to the badness. The 1980s weren’t Bowie’s best, although the first three songs on Let’s Dance are still one of the great peaks of his career. Following that, Bowie spent a lot of time trying to recreate Let’s Dance, something many of his contemporaries had a go at too. He never managed it in that time: Never Let Me Down is bland and instantly forgettable, while Tonight is straight up awful. You don’t think Bowie would have been blinded by his own success to the point where a cover of God Only Knows by the Beach Boys would seem like a good idea, and yet there it is. Even the ultimate influencer of the medium couldn’t help but chase the tides now and then.
I learned that Bowie was uncool. Greatness and death are the ultimate whitewashes, and I struggled to imagine a time where Bowie wasn’t always the coolest person in the room. Visiting those oft-overlooked albums, for good reasons or otherwise, led me to review after review where each album release following his return to solo work was greeted as his best in years. 1. Outside was the best in years, but then it was Earthling, but then it was Hours, and this continued right up to The Next Day. Stick around long enough and you’ll always become yesterday’s news, although I’d always known Bowie as the one who never got old or uncool.
I learned that I preferred his voice as he aged. The hoarse scratchiness after years of vocal dexterity and hitting that high note on Life on Mars gave immediate poginancy to numbers like Where Are They Now. It was a weathered voice, but a hardy one that contradicted its seeming delicacies. It was the voice he had earned.
I learned that yeah, Tin Machine did kind of suck, although there is something undeniably badass about Bowie, at the peak of his mainstream popularity, jacking in his solo career to form a rock band with two of Soupy Sales’s kids.
I learned that, while it could hardly be considered a creative peak, the soundtrack to Labyrinth will probably always be my Bowie on some level. None of it should work and yet there’s a warmth and wry silliness to it that feels like Bowie at his most self-aware (you’d have to be if you were going to wear those trousers with that bulge on display). Nostalgia can be a pretty poison but I’m secure in my love of Labyrinth.
I learned that his characters stuck with me. Major Tom became more than that guy from those songs: He was the ultimate tragic hero, a mournful figure whose rise, fall and deification was a folk tale for the modern age. The Thin White Duke taught me how tiresome Bowie could be, with his Aryan aristocrat stylings and seemingly pro-fascists public statements, seeing an artistic hero acting like every Reddit edge-lord certainly punctured a few holes in his facade (although in fairness, cocaine is a hell of a drug). The cavalcade of performance became dizzying by the time I’d hit the halfway mark of my resolution. I wonder if it became as cloudy for Bowie himself, an impenetrable smog of acting and roles that betrayed a clearer truth.
I learned that there were things I couldn’t look past anymore. As the year came to a close and the Harvey Weinstein news broke, I was midway through listening to Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), an apt title for a moment where irony seemed the least of our worries. I could not ignore the reports and rumours of Bowie’s own past, including the story of Lori Maddox, a former groupie who claimed to have lost her virginity to Bowie when she was only 14. The false glamour of rockstar living, where women are the ultimate social capital, has been an impenetrable part of the dream for so long that songs about desperate girls on the tour bus have become as common as guitar smashing. We talk of such behaviour as being ‘of the time’, and how any woman would feel only too proud to be ‘deflowered’ by Bowie, but those glory days have lost their shine and the remaining darkness cast a deep shadow over the rest of my resolution. I believe David Bowie committed statutory rape, and I would be lying if I claimed that didn’t impact how I listened to his music. I still find myself quietly making the same excuses in my head, becoming that person I hate, the one who prizes their hobbies over people’s lived experiences. Bowie is still a hero to me, and yet there’s a small part in my brain, my heart, whatever my soul is, that sort of wishes he wasn’t.
I learned that, despite all of that, despite the emotional strife and difficult thinking I’d done, when it came time to conclude the resolution and finally listen to Blackstar, I found that I wasn’t ready to leave. That final work, the one I had put off for close to two years, was the end, and I couldn’t deny it any longer. There are TV shows I never finished growing up because I’d managed to convince myself that they’d never truly end if I didn’t watch the finale. The logic is flawed but it’s a safety that many of us are familiar with. ★ is like a ricochet through Bowie’s entire career, so intricately layered and intertextual, achingly emotional and as daring as his risk-free youth. Many critics commented on its status as a goodbye album, the old man’s acceptance of his impending death, but it’s too trippy and abrasive to reduce to a mere ending. It’s more akin to Bowie climbing to the top of the mountain and yelling to the young pretenders below that he’s still got it. I cried.
The year is almost over, and soon it will have been two years since Bowie died. In that passing period, the world has flipped on its axis into something newer, scarier, and tougher to deal with than I’m used to. I think a lot about the kind of music he would have made to accompany these times. Where could he have gone after ★? Was there anywhere left for him to go? Where did I want to see him go? Whatever Bowie you want or need, there is one for you, although my own struggles to deal with the elephants in the room of his legacy is a work in progress.
I miss David Bowie.
So let’s dance.
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