11 January 2016

Exit, Stage Left

Momus on this morning’s news, and the “theatrical timing” of Bowie’s passing:

"Apparently he’d had cancer for eighteen months. What a keeper of secrets, just as he was when he used to sneak in and out of Bromley bedsits, playing girls off against each other, giving everyone a different story! Sneaky David who lied to everybody because it really wasn’t any of our business! He even got Tony Visconti to lie about him being healthy and strong! I’d heard the cancer rumours, but I believed the lies. I preferred to, needed to: the lies were so much more palatable.

"But it wasn’t really 'unexpectedly'. His songs — the public statements that really matter — had all the while been spelling things out stark and clear to those of us willing to listen. I felt uncomfortable singing, in my Blackstar cover: 'Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside...' It was totally clear who 'he' was. And then came Lazarus, with 'Look up here, I’m in heaven...' And that video which has him disappearing into the wardrobe at the end. To Narnia, some said."

Of course there’ll be an avalanche of tributes hammered out and posted today and in the days to come, but I think I may stop reading there.

It’d be fair to say that Bowie was formative musical input during my early teenage years -- Station to Station being the first full album of his that I sank into, roughly about a year before the release of Scary Monsters. In the several years that followed, I did the backtracking and absorbed all of his back catalogue. But come my late teens and about 20-plus years of my adulthood, I paid him little attention -- never listened to his music (new or old), rarely had reason to even think of him.

What changed?, what prompted a revisitation after a long absence? I don’t know -- maybe it when younger critics, those who weren’t around back when Bowie was a big artistic entity -- began to appraise the man’s career at a more objective remove. Or maybe it was hearing Seu Jorge’s delicate versions of Bowie songs for the Life Aquatic soundtrack; hearing those songs in a more naked and humble form, stripped of their multipart arrangements and electric bombast, and realizing that underneath lay some very peculiar and at times lovely songwriting.

It prompted me to gradually revisit the early Bowie albums, curious to see how they’d strike me now that I’m much older and have the benefit of my own distance from the work’s period of origin. I found that my preferences hadn’t changed much over the years. The much-heralded, hit-making, high-concept Glam years -- good, but (as before) not among my favorites. Instead I found myself more deeply drawn to the fore-and-aft transitional phases -- particularly Hunky Dory and the “Berlin Years” material. The years when Bowie didn’t in advance know what direction he wanted to go, and was operating more by intuition and curiosity than by design.

But yes, back to the matter of timing. I’d spent the past few days noting the reviews of the new (and now final) album, Blackstar. Unanimously positive of the half dozen or so that I’d read. I couldn’t help but wonder if the verdicts of “his best album in decades” weren’t partly because of the element of unexpectedness of the project’s jazz-tinged experimentalism -- the surprising change of direction as proof-positive that the man still had a sense of artistic adventurism after so many years. Each accompanied with a checklist of reputed musical inspirations and influences on the project: Kendrick Lamar, Death Grips, and (perhaps mostly puzzling of all) Boards of Canada. None of which are, to my ears, apparent throughout the album. But a number of critics mention one possible inspiration that does make much more sense when I’d only heard excerpts from the first few of the Blackstar songs --- the music of Scott Walker. A bit ironic, that; considering Walker was a figure who has at the height of his pop fame at the time that David Jones took the stage-surname Bowie, spending the next several years floundering about in the U.K. pop market, before finally becoming the artist as he's now known and remembered.

And agin about that timing: I only got the album yesterday, giving it first spin around sundown. Yes, it’s frontloaded with the more experimental, more challenging tunes; but it ends with three songs that are -- by my reckoning -- among the most gorgeous things Bowie ever did. And the voice -- that distinctive throaty croon of his -- was undiminished by the years. By the time the album’s last song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, was in full sweep, my wife came into the room, practically clutching her heart. “This is really good,” she said to me. “Fucking hell. To think it was made by a man almost seventy years old. Maybe he really is an alien, after all.” Only then to awake to this morning’s news, which cast her comments -- as well as much of Blackstar's lyrics -- into an uncanny context. Fucking hell, indeed.

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