The 1980s saw a low point in David Bowie’s creative output. He was not alone, as many of the great artists of the sixties and seventies released a lot of dreck in the 1980s. Many of them never recovered, while others regained relevancy only as nostalgia acts, touring on their old hits and/or recording new songs that sound a whole lot like their old songs. Always one to be different, in 1990 Bowie staged his Sound & Vision Tour where he symbolically “retired” much of his back catalog of hit songs (although some of the songs returned for later tours). Incidentally, my sister had a cassette of the Changesbowie greatest hits compilation from the same year, which was my first exposure to most of Bowie’s hit songs.
Around the same time, Bowie formed a new band Tin Machine with Reeves Gabrels, Tony Sales, and Hunt Sales (my favorite tidbit is that the latter two are sons of children’s tv host Soupy Sales). Bowie made an effort to make sure that he was part of a democratic band encouraging interviewers to talk with the other band members and not just him. The hard rock sound was reminiscent of blues rock from the sixties and seventies (including Bowie’s work on The Man Who Sold the World) as well as contemporary alternative rock music that would soon become known as grunge. Rejuvenated by his experience with Tin Machine, Bowie had a creative revival and over the course of 25 years experimented with electronic music (both house and drum & bass), theatrical concept albums, video game soundtracks, jazz, and art rock, and set a standard for a rock star to age gracefully without compromise.
While Bowie will be most remembered for his work from around 1969 to 1981, I think his 1990s and 2000s work is also worth revisiting.
Album: Tin Machine
Release Date: 22 May 1989
Favorite Tracks: “Heaven’s in Here,” “Tin Machine,” “Crack City,” and “Bus Stop”
Thoughts: I kind of wish I’d given this album a try when it first came out as it would’ve slotted in well with other bands I was listening to at the time such as Living Colour and The Smithereens, as well as blues rock from the 60s and 70s. Better late than never. While the music here can be bland at times, it holds up much better than Bowie’s mid-80s work.
Album: Tin Machine II
Release Date: 2 September 1991
Favorite Tracks: “You Belong in Rock n’ Roll,” “Stateside,” “Shopping for Girls,” and “Goodbye Mr. Ed”
Thoughts: Still blues rock with a hard edge (especially “Stateside”) but a sound that fits in with the alternative rock of the era. I think the first Tin Machine II album was more consistent, but my favorite tracks stand out more on this album.
Album: Black Tie White Noise
Release Date: 5 April 1993
Favorite Tracks: “You’ve Been Around,” “Jump They Say,” “Pallas Athena,” and “Miracle Goodnight”
Thoughts: There’s a lot going on this album. Bowie is celebrating his wedding to Iman. He is reunited with producer Nile Rodgers and guitarist Mick Ronson. And he’s exploring blending house music with sax-heavy soul music. Some tracks have a cheezy synth-sound, but overall this may be the most danceable David Bowie album. This is another one I wish I checked out at the time it was released because I probably would’ve liked it.
Album: 1. Outside
Release Date: 25 September 1995[
Favorite Tracks: “A Small Plot of Land,” “Hallo Spaceboy,” “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” “No Control”
Thoughts: Bowie once again dips into a well of previous successes, reuniting with producer Brian Eno and creating a concept album on dystopian themes not unlike Diamond Dogs. The result is a theatrical collection of industrial tracks. The album is lengthy and dark in tone, so I can’t imagine wanting to put it on often, but that does not detract from the artistry of it.
Album: EART HL I NG
Release Date: 3 February 1997
Favorite Tracks: “Little Wonder,” “Battle for Britain (The Letter),” “Telling Lies,” and “I’m Afraid of Americans”
Thoughts: David Bowie continues to experiment with contemporary music styles, this time blending drum and bass with his brand of rock and roll. “I’m Afraid of Americans” is the only 1990s song I believe I’ve heard before, and it’s not even the best one on the album.
Release Date: 21 September 1999
Favorite Tracks: The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell
Thoughts: With Bowie, expect the unexpected. What’s unexpected here is that this album originated with the music for a computer game soundtrack. What’s unfortunate is that much of it is mellow, “easy listening” material which is a bit too reminiscent of his 1980s nadir (but with better production). “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” is the standout track, but I think it would’ve been just run-of-the-mill on previous 1990s albums.
Release Date: 11 June 2002
Favorite Tracks: “Slip Away” and “Heathen (The Rays)”
Thoughts: This album kind of strikes me as what if the guy who recorded Let’s Dance grew older and decided to record a more serious album. There’s nothing wrong with the that, it’s just odd considering all the other incarnations of Bowie in-between. The instrumentation on the album is lush, but musically it still has too much of an easy-listening vibe.
Release Date: 16 September 2003
Favorite Tracks: “New Killer Star,” “Pablo Picasso,” “Try Some, Buy Some,” and “Reality”
Thoughts: This is a partner album for Heathens, although with more of a post-punk vibe, a harder rock & roll edge, and more consistency from song to song. Bowie gets abstractly political and throws in a couple of covers.
Album: The Next Day
Release Date: 8 March 2013
Favorite Tracks: “Where Are We Now?” and “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”
Thoughts: After a ten-year absence from releasing studio recordings, Bowie surprised fans with a new album. The Next Day is a straight-forward rocker of an album that both builds on Bowie’s past and show’s his continued interest in innovation. This another album where I haven’t singled out many favorite tracks but I do like the overall tone and flow of the complete album.
Release Date: 8 January 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Blackstar,” “Lazarus,” “Girl Loves Me,” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
Thoughts: For the first and only time, I listened to a David Bowie recording at the time it was released. I remember being blown away by the title song when it came out in November 2015, and impressed that Bowie was doing such innovative work so late in his career. And then Bowie died just two days after the album was released in January. It’s clear that Bowie’s mortality informed the lyrics and that this album was a farewell. But Bowie also left on a creative peak, incorporating experimental jazz and electronic music in his own inimitable way.
Five unexpected things that I learned about Bowie through listening to all of his studio albums:
- That he likes to do lots of cover songs. I’d always thought he was the type of artist who only recorded his own songs.
- That he’s a major collaborator. I knew about Bowie’s work with Queen and Bing Crosby, but all through his career he worked with an enormous number of talented artists.
- That he likes to rework, re-record, and reissue songs, often over long periods of time.
- That most of his 80s work is so unlistenable, but that so much of his work from 1989 onward that I never heard before is rather remarkable.
- That listening to all the studio albums just scratches the surface of the work Bowie produced since he has so many non-album recordings, soundtracks, remixes, live recordings, and collaborations with other artists, not to mention his work in music videos and films.
On that last note, I could extend this Bowie discovery series indefinitely. But, for now I will call this an end, and when Music Discoveries returns I will be revisiting the music of The Replacements.