Monday, February 23, 2009

The Artistry of David Bowie

Four decades is an astonishingly long time to spend sustaining a consistent musical vision, but this is exactly what certified rock legend David Bowie has been doing throughout his extensive career. Granted that Bowie’s artistry is a bit of a shape-shifting proposition, with successful ventures in genres as diverse as singer-songwriter pop, audacious glam-rock, self-assured white soul, streamlined mainstream pop and fearsome industrial-rock textures, but it does take a forceful personality to weather the changes and master the reinventions. It’s worthwhile to check out the true highlights of Bowie’s discography, if only to revisit the mercurial sensibilities that have become veritable artistic trademarks for him.

A career kick-starter that holds much promise for what is to come, 'Space Oddity' contains the superlative title track, still the best depiction of the hazards of deep-space exploration ever laid down on record, and also an early example of psychedelic pop. Meanwhile, ‘Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud’ is gleaming late-60s orchestral pop, while the authentic-sounding hippie anthem 'Memory of a Free Festival’ is appropriately hazy and dreamy, with its repeated refrain of "The sun machine is coming down and we're going to have a party".

A studied, singer-songwriterly effort with some of the most evocative lyrics ever penned by Bowie, belying its pleasant easy-listening veneer and conventional musicality. The eloquent ‘Changes’ is the indisputable highlight from here, but the agreeably poppish ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ and the idiosyncratic dancehall-influenced ‘Kooks’ are also things to look out for on this early-era classic.

Arguably the most recognisable and celebrated glam-rock work of all time, this concept album (built around the improbable theme of an androgynous rock star from Mars who crash-lands on Earth) also remains the most defining record of Bowie’s 70s-era output. The explosive title track makes for one hell of a statement of intention, ‘Five Years’ is a melodramatic, theatrical opener, and the kaleidoscopic ‘Suffragette City’ overflows with a surfeit of instrumental riches. The concluding ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’ is as extravagant as closing tracks go, a powerful, anthemic charger that deftly combines Brill Building pop and the more extreme aspects of glam-rock.

Another concept album, this time revolving around a bleak, dystopian future (largely inspired by Orwell’s ‘1984’), and featuring a variegated musical template, spiced with everything from rock and roll, plastic soul and glam-rock. The title track is built around a crunchy, Rolling Stones-influenced aesthetic, while ‘Rebel Rebel’ is a stomping, optimistic guitar-rocker that could well be the most accessible instance in Bowie’s entire 70s-era repertoire. Meanwhile, ‘1984’ is a superior slice of white soul that also includes proto-disco components.

This plastic-soul endeavour works in a surprisingly effective manner, mainly because Bowie decided to play the tracks straight, rather than impart any sense of knowing parody into the scheme of things. The inspirational Philly-soul title-track set piece is the clear highlight here, although there are other striking material here like the glistening disco-funky ‘Fame’ and the stately ballad ‘Can You Hear Me’.

LOW (1977)
The most realised record from Bowie’s notorious Berlin era, ‘Low’ is a prototypical electro-pop album that is rightfully regarded as one of the main precursors of the coming new-wave movement. There might be a handful of relatively accessible, pop-oriented tunes that anchor the proceedings (the polished ‘Sound and Vision’, the tightly wound ‘Breaking Glass’), but the more interesting facet of the album lies in the sidelong crop of tonal, impressionistic instrumental sketches, which are basically precedents to the ambient-electronica sub-genre.

Granted, the entire make-up of ‘Scary Monsters’ was motivated by the innovative aesthetics that Bowie pioneered with his Berlin trilogy, but it managed to develop a distinct identity of its own. High points here are aplenty, including the robotic disco-funk of ‘Fashion’, the raucous Teutonic soul of ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’, the mutant pop of ‘Up the Hill Backwards’, and the truly brilliant paranoid post-glam of ‘Ashes to Ashes’, long established as a Bowie essential.

LET’S DANCE (1983)
The most successful and realised album in Bowie’s otherwise artistically lacklustre 80s period, spawning high-charting hits like the dance-funk-informed title track, the skittering pop-soul pastiche ‘Modern Love’, and the coolly detached Canto-pop nugget ‘China Girl’. The melodramatic ‘Cat People’ is a deeply atmospheric cut originally recorded for the slick horror flick of the same name, and ‘Without You’ is a slyly subversive take on the conventions of the traditional love song.

OUTSIDE (1995)
A mostly rewarding adventure in industrial rock, with appropriately aggressive textures permeating the proceedings. This makes it a bit heavy-going at times, but thankfully, the level of creativity and innovation at work here more than make up for any perceived insularity. ‘The Heart's Filthy Lesson’ might be bound within the rigid strictures of routine white noise, but some modern-jazz piano noodling gives it added character. Other good bits like the measured, robotic funk of ‘I Have Not Been to Oxford Town’ and the neo-classical ‘Wishful Beginnings' are all solid testament to Bowie’s genius.

REALITY (2003)
A bona fide return to form, and a recapitulation of his 70s-era artistic ideals, ‘Reality’ possesses an overwhelming sense of musical avant-gardism that is uniquely Bowie in nature. Bowie has never sounded as commanding as he does on here, channelling his confidence through crackers like the electronic-tinged rocker ‘New Killer Star’, the mockingly cheery ‘Never Get Old’ and the insouciantly breezy ‘Days’. Meanwhile, the solemn eight-minute closer ‘Bring Me the Disco King’ looms over it all with its epic jazz-noir atmospherics.


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