David Bowie: The Forgotten Trilogy

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As The Next Day is released, a look back at one-named little wonders: Hours, Heathen and Reality

FIRST THINGS FIRST: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A FORGOTTEN TRILOGY IN DAVID BOWIE’S BACK CATALOGUE, THERE AREN’T EVEN MANY THINGS RESEMBLING A TRILOGY.  Of the most famous, the sublime ‘Berlin trilogy’ of Low, Heroes and Lodger, only Heroes was completely written, recorded and mixed in Berlin.

But that album, relatively shorn of a persona, may well be the most famous, the most influential, the most definitive Bowie album.  So much so, it’s no surprise that Bowie’s first album in a decade, released this week, modifies/obscures the cover of that 1977 albumIt makes even more sense considering the album’s first single clearly harked back to those Berlin days.  There is no doubt that much has happened in the intervening 36 years but Bowie would never again match his 1970s work rate – a period that once made him wonder if he had ‘overachieved’.

So, the forgotten trilogy?  A trilogy out of nothing.  But it just so happens that the first review I read of Bowie’s new album The Next Day remarked that it was his best album since 1. Outside.  A strange claim in the normal mix of things, but framed in the classic Bowie critique it’s as good as comparison as any; referring back to an abstract point in his back catalogue that has no doubt improved with age.  Legendarily, every album following Bowie’s commercial success, but critical slide, with Let’s Dance was declared ‘the best thing he’s done since Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’.  In this review it was 1.Outside – not a bad album – but when fairly bundled with the following Earthling, it manages to totally exclude Bowie’s late 1990s and early 2000s work.  Rather harshly in fact.

While Bowie albums are rarely one genre, they tend to be described by their predominant genre – Young Americans may be soul while Earthling is drum ‘n’ bass.  But between Earthling and 2003, when Bowie started his 10 year break, he actually released three albums. The assumption is that these may not be so easily recognisable as his previous work, potentially even forgettable and so lend themselves to be conveniently written out of history.  It’s always harsh.  By making a trilogy out of them, I myself am conveniently writing out the 2001 All Saints album of collected instrumentals.

So it’s unfair but convenient to wrap the three albums up as the forgotten trilogy – a wonderful jumble of nostalgia and retrospective with I’d say more than one classic Bowie song between them.

Hours: The Last of the Dreamers

Hours surfaced in 1999, and may be my most listened to Bowie album simply by dint of it hitting my first year at University, and fresh into my discovery of Bowie/post-Art School haze.

Hours’ opening track, Thursday’s Child, sets the tone of reminiscence, with rather haunting backing vocals from Holly Palmer pushing up to a duet at points.  It’s subdued but effective, no doubt a side-effect from its origin, as with much of the album, as a soundtrack for the video game Omikron: Nomad Soul.  A neat throwback to Bowie’s recent closeness to touring partners Nine Inch Nails, contributors to games such as Quake, videogames seemed a perfect step for Bowie.  In the previous two years Bowie had refinanced his back catalogue and issued Bowie Bonds while diversifying on the web and now he was forging forward with videogames.  Bowie had always, unsurprisingly, been tech-savvy – reportedly sending his first email in the early 1980s – and games were a neat fit, Tony least culturally.  Not only that, Hours was the first album to be released in its entirety as a download before its physical release.  “Thursday’s Child has far to go” but is still ahead of the curve.

Of course, the result had to be a little obtuse.  Rejecting his recent working methods of sprint writing and recording, Bowie alongside guitarist, former Tin Machiner Reeves Gabrels, settled in Bermuda to write the album.   The result was, despite its brilliantly crazy cover and trend setting technology, Bowie’s most straightforward album for a long time.

Second track Something in the Air harks back to its revolutionary namesake in name alone, although the reference is not lost.  As with much of the first half of Hours, Bowie talks from the past and present about what may be a past or fading love affair or metaphor for any facet  of his career.  Where he has danced too long, he may be referring to his endless attempts to reconnect and win new fans, now or at any point of his career.  “I guess I never wanted anyone more than you”.  In the later songs, he seems to be calling to his muses, particularly in second single Survive.  “Where’s the morning (sic) in my life?”  he asks.  “I’ve got ears and eyes but nothing in my life”  – the muse may be gone…  Or she or his critics remain with their naked eyes on him.  Bowie recalls razzle-dazzle clubs every night while wishing he sent a valentine – but to who?

The result is rather melancholy first half, culminating in Bowie asking if he’s Dreaming all his Life – grasping at the memory of his muse; asking if it was “air she breathed”.

By What’s Really Happening, grunge had replaced the romantic softness of the earlier songs, but the questions haven’t stopped.  A song later Bowie returns to the Pretty Things, this time stating that they’re going to hell – which just might be one of the best titled songs in his career – but this time there’s an edge of mistrust and deceit, a far cry from the revolutionary mock-chastisement of the song’s 1971 near namesake. The riff of Pretty Things Are Going To Hell is glorious while Bowie starts to provide a few answers: “I am the blood in the corner of your eye” indeed.  Prolonged instrumental intros soon take a turn for the Heroes, and when Bowie surfaces he sings about the Angels of Promise once again, this time in discordant chorus.  Brilliant Adventure then delves into the orient, a long held interest surfacing again while drawing up memories of his previous Fantastic Voyage and other Berlin work.  But this is not the Bowie of the 1970s.  Where he had once blurred ‘Lennon’ and ‘Lenin’, Bowie now muddles ‘shallow’ and ‘shadow’ In Hour’s TS Eliot inspired climax; upbeat music and downbeat lyrics.

Bowie’s reasons for such a retrospective at this point remains unclear, but this Bowie is by no means passive.  While 27 years earlier, he sang of five years to live he now speaks of Seven Days.  Seven is a key number linked to the spirituality that the album is steeped in, helped along by the auto tuning, the light synth hangovers and Gabrels guitar from his previous two albums.  It’s better sculpted and more unified than other albums a decade either side, but in the Bowie universe that can equate to bland.  This album was the first of Bowie’s since 1972 not to breach the US top 40, but its significance was to be more obvious in the following years – notwithstanding several reissues.

Of course the clue was not only in the name of Hours, but also its cover.  Among pastel geometric shapes, Hours era Bowie cradles a possibly dead Earthling era Bowie in homage to La Pieta.  Bowie had transformed once again, but had he properly disposed of the retrospection?

Heathen: Have I stared Too Long?

No, clearly not.  Perhaps Hours wasn’t long enough, perhaps not hard enough – but within three years he returned with a new album of retrospection.  This is a good thing, because out of a tumultuous few years, Heathen emerged magnificent.  The intervening time saw the commencement and then abandonment of the Toys album, his self-proclaimed Pin-Ups II.  The resulting fall out with his studio, perhaps led to Heathen’s harder edge.  But probably more key was that Bowie had fallen back in with Tony Visconti.  Not only the producer of the “last good Bowie album” Scary Monsters but involved in much of his legendary 1970s work.  Work on Heathen had also started in the same studios as Philip Glass had used to record his versions of Bowie’s Berlin masterpieces in the early 1990s – an auspicious start.  Clearly Bowie was intent on harnessing the past, much as he would again 13 years later.  “Out in space, it’s always 1982” he sings in Slip Away.

Surrounded by the religiously, gothic, Walkeresque parenthesis, Heathen’s body is an outstanding run of songs.

Just as Bowie had stepped in to help his heroes earlier in his career, so he reasoned in the early 2000s that in times of trouble he would look at his peers and inspirations.  If that’s true, Heathen really is an example of greatness coming from adversity.  This is Bowie at one of his most collaborative, with alumni of The Who, Nirvana and King Crimson making guest appearances. Perhaps as an extension of Toy, Heathen contains three covers, a scintillating version of the Pixie’s Cactus, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spacecraft – which returned Bowie to space in a well-fitting spacesuit – and a cover of Neil Young’s I’ve Been Waiting for You with Dave Grohl blistering on guitar. The departed were present as well.  Afraid, is a twisted and rippingly great riposte to Lennon’s God.  Bowie was still competing even if he felt too old to appear in a video.

Bowie is still paranoid, perhaps even more so, but also angrier about impending old age and the inevitability that it would take from him his newly found familial stability.  By Everybody Says Hi – a throwaway, but sweet song – he’s seemingly at dotage.  Even if a song later he’s demanding a better future, backed by a Christmas tinkling.  There is no doubt about Heathen‘s depth.  “From factory to field how many tears must fall.  Down there below… Nothing is moving”

Far more atheist than the agnostic Hours, Heathen  still raises more questions than answers.  Far removed from the glam or literature of his past, the album builds perfectly to its sublime close, Heathen (The Rays).  A simple lament, and one of Bowie’s best.  Were that something agnostic could be beautiful, for this would be a prime example.

The overall result is an album every bit as good as it’s artwork –one of his best covers.  The quality and tone is such that it’s no coincidence Bowie chose to duet Heathen with Low at point of the album tour.  It’s that good an album, let alone a companion piece.  Hours had shown the effect of Bowie’s mastery of drum loops and drum ‘n’ bass, but here they reach a new maturity – kept in check by someone in full control, with a deeper, more visceral and atavistic argument than Hours’ sometimes obscure spirituality.  Partially aided by the failure of Toy, which allowed some songs additional time to grow, most thanks must go to the newly re-fostered relationship of Visconti and Bowie.  They again crafted one of Bowie’s best.

Responding to the obvious questions about its contempraneity, Bowie replied that many of his albums could have been seen as reflective to an event like 9/11.  It’s true that the album was recorded before the terrorist attacks in Bowie’s adopted hometown, but certainly provides a deeper spiritual experience than its immediate predecessors.  New York and a change in his attitude to promotion would surface a short time later.

Reality: Back where I started from…

Pounding back on a schedule, Bowie resurfaced just a year later with 2003’s Reality.  After little fanfare for Heathen but a fair tour with what he proclaimed to be his strongest ever band – Reality was a return to the stadiums.  It had been a while.  As the title suggested, this was Bowie at possibly his most straightforward.  Alas, it would be a stadium album for a stadium tour that would finish him off for ten years.  I saw him at the start of the tour, then near the end.  In Birmingham he was blinding, wheeling out the lovely Days was a nice and unexpected touch – but by the Isle of Wight, I was surely suffering Bowie fatigue.  That is not to say it wasn’t stupendous – he even wheeled out the full Station to Station.  Suitably amazing, but weeks before he had to call time on his biggest tour for years.

A cartoon Bowie adorns the cover of Reality, not the religious heretic of the earlier album nor the old Bowie crossed out 10 years later on The Next Day.  Anime Bowie was the figurehead of a more powerful live rock.  Some of the ambiguity found in Hours was fading, Bowie even suggested that Reality was a “sense of New York”.  This was his true response to 9/11 (most notable in the stinging Fall Dogs Bombs the Moon) and he was taking it out on the road.  Big time.

The songs were accessible, the lyrics retaining a tension after Heathen.  Words mangled in this new world, from its blistering opening New Killer Star through to covers that were again cunningly chosen.

At the time Bowie was wisely cherry picking his back catalogue.  The start of the century had seen him as long haired as Hunky Dory, with a suitably elaborate coat.  Now the hair was styled and foppish, the clothing more regular, as he wheeled out Rebel Rebel as his universal anthem.  He even released it on an album bonus disk alongside Queen Bitch.  The 1970s were writ large, but he was no slave to them.  While his covers were less, they were carefully selected.  I remember a critic at the time wishing that Bowie would end his extended Pin Ups project.  However, in Reality as in Heathen they’re seamless.  In the latter, The Modern Lover’s Pablo Picasso sets a simple statement while recalling Bowie’s own Andy Warhol on Hunky Dory in spirit.  It sets the New York tone intended.  Later on, Bowie picks up the ‘All things must pass’ lyric at the end of Heathen, by covering George Harrison’s Try Some, Buy Some.  And a rather marvellous waltz it is too.

Never Get Old – the theme to that Vittel advert, surely has one of the most simplistic bass scales ever heard in a Bowie song, but then it’s straightforward shouty pop.  Looking for Water recalls the thumping rhythm lines of his 1970’s work, including Boys Keep Swinging, whilst retaining Reality’s  general discordance.  Two great middle-eights set this album for me, the lament on the brilliantly understated Days – the more Hours-like song on the album, if not in production terms – and then that of the title track, a blistering and stadium rock tune full of references to bowie past.

If Bowie remained spiritually agnostic to a point from Hours running into Heathen, here Bowie seems to be testing his own grit and direction.  At points he is introverted , possibly verging on actually  being that Loneliest Guy or singing the haunting avant-garde closing track for eternity.  In terms of this, diversifying the tunes and sending the show out on the road seemed a fair response.   Defaulting to the dark as standard throughout his career, recent new parenthood may have affected Him, but he has said before that he generally approaches similar subjects from different angles throughout all his albums.  Reality was another example.  Alas it was to end sourly, but still after 10 years away from the studio, there was to be The Next Day

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6 thoughts on “David Bowie: The Forgotten Trilogy”

  1. You don’t see too much praise for Reality from Bowie fans. It’s good to see ‘Days’ getting some attention, for me it seemed like a farewell song, a farewell that would have had more relevance if The Next Day hadn’t come along lol.

    Like

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