In an ongoing attempt to bleed my opinions all over your computer screen, I’m selecting one album from every year that I’ve been alive that has some sort of significance to me…and then writing about it. Welcome back to 35 Albums in 35 Years.
It would seem that most people have a classic musician or band that they fall back on, a favorite of old, either an artist with decades of material to draw from, a dense and lush back catalog, or one who’s career was so important and pivotal, that it influenced everything that came after. Or, it could be both. People cite bands like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or The Velvet Underground, and artists like Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan or Patti Smith. The classics. The originators. The pioneers. The cultural landscapers. For me, it’s always been about the alien. The chameleon. The man who fell to Earth. The thin, white duke.
For me, it’s always been about Bowie.
I’m not exactly sure when I first became aware of the music of David Bowie. I can only assume it was either through hearing “Space Oddity” or “Heroes” on some classic rock station when I was a kid, or maybe through his role as Jareth in Labyrinth. Any of the videos from Let’s Dance could have been my entry point, or even that cover of “Dancing in the Street” with Mick Jagger (shudder). Whatever it may have been, the man got his fingers into my brain and my ear holes good, and he’s never let go.
Having been making music for the better part of 50 years, Bowie’s career can be divided over and over again into different periods, different styles, different eras. He is the chameleon after all. After the Ziggy Stardust days and the Berlin albums came to a close, Bowie found himself a certifiable superstar with the success of Let’s Dance. He was an absolute force in the pop world, the very definition of rock star. And then it all went downhill. All the albums and music from the late 80’s and early 90’s, to put it bluntly, suck. Things didn’t really begin to turn around until Bowie re-teamed with Brian Eno for 1995’s flawed but interesting industrial concept album Outside. Some decent material flowed from there after, but nothing really floored me until 2002’s “return to form,” Heathen. It was his best album in years.
With Tony Visconti back on the boards, Heathen was heralded as some kind of “Berlin Trilogy” revival, a return to the sounds and themes of old. It’s not. While there are certainly some aesthetic similarities here and there (dig on that album cover), overall Heathen was the start of something completely different. Whereas Low and Heroes can feel sparse and bleak, a result of the Cold War atmosphere in eastern Europe at the time, production sessions mired in cocaine withdrawal as Bowie cleaned himself up, and some influence from German music and Krautrock, Heathen shows splashes of warmth throughout. Melancholia abounds, but there is a wistful nature to the proceedings, as if Bowie is looking back on everything with regret and fondness. That tone would continue with 2003’s Reality, which essentially served as the second half of the thematic arc begun on Heathen.
The twelve tracks on Heathen run the proverbial gauntlet, from icy electronica on tracks like “Sunday” and “Heathen (The Rays),” to bombastic rock on “Slow Burn” and “I’ve Been Waiting for You” (a Neil Young cover), to the strange meandering of “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spacecraft,” to a cover of The Pixies’ classic jam “Cactus.” I’ve always found Frank Black’s lyrics to have a certain kinship with Bowie’s, so that cover makes perfect sense. The standout on the album though, has to be “Slip Away.” That song embodies longing, using the nostalgia for an old “children’s” television program, The Uncle Floyd Show, as the metaphor for looking back on what might have been. On the right day, it can make the eyes a little misty. At a concert in 2004, I was fortunate enough to see Bowie perform “Slip Away” as a duet with Tim DeLaughter of The Polyphonic Spree. By song’s end, every member of The Spree joined in on the chorus. It was glorious.
For years there were rumors of a third album to join Heathen and Reality and create another Bowie trilogy, but it never came into fruition. Bowie subsided from the limelight for awhile until 2013’s “return to form” The Next Day. And that album’s great too. It makes me wonder if the next Bowie era has begun.
I would be okay with that. It’s always been about Bowie.
- Favorite song: “Slip Away”
– Runner up: “Heathen (The Rays)”
Some other albums I almost wrote about instead: Black Heart Procession’s Amore del Tropico; Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi; Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights; Johnny Cash’s American IV; Beck’s Seachange; The Roots’ Phrenology; Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf; Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Yanqui UXO.
From a bunker somewhere in Central Texas, Thomas H. Williams spends most of his time with his wife, his two sons, and his increasingly neurotic dog. He listens to a lot of music, drinks a lot of excellent beers, and gets out from time to time. For even more shenanigans, visit heavenisanincubator.blogspot.com.