What’s there left to say? The late David Bowie rarely embarrassed himself during the period after his biggest corporate paychecks, and if listeners lower their expectations this work offers reward. ★ is the exception: it’s one of his ten greatest albums.
1. ★ (2016)
To Pimp a Butterfly sounded like a classic on release. So did The Weight of These Wings. 2015-2016 was like that. Even if Bowie hadn’t died — friends know me as an unsentimental cuss — I would’ve elevated ★ after a what-the-fuck-is-this notice filed by yours truly. Replacing his studio band with guitarist Ben Monder, Jason Lindner on keyboards, and saxophonist Donny McCaslin reanimated the spaces in which skilled players could improvise. “Lazarus” and “Sue” had no antecedents in Bowie’s discography; it’s those tracks and “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” that dispel the incense, for a Bowie Farewell Album should point to a mask he didn’t wear, a pair of shoes he didn’t try on, a persona he was about to assume.
2. 1. Outside (1995)
Bowie’s Back, Part 2. Dismissed as overwrought as if Bowie shared a mode with John Prine, Outside still quakes and shudders: a full-on collaboration with old friends like guitarist Carlos Alomar, new ones like Reeves Gabrels, and longtime fellow traveler/dabbler Brian Eno. As I wrote in my obit: “Ignore the liner notes (I suspect critics, being literary fellows, judged the album on the basis of those notes) and listen to a crack band explore crevices of metal, Liza Minnelli balladry, fractured pop songs about architect Philip Johnson. Amid the rubble sits “Strangers When We Meet,” a swirling valentine to an object of desire whose sublimity vaporizes semantic coherence. Heel head over. We scavenge up our clothes.”
3. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
Denied a domestic release until it came under the cover of Tonight and Never Let Me Down two years later, this bauble came together under the pressure of a deadline. Bowie and longtime collaborator/long-term Bowie martyr Erdal Kizilcay played every instrument in the service of a bunch of throwaway rockers and instrumentals created for a BBC adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel. I listened to “The Mysteries” and “Untitled No. 1” as often as to Low in those long ago and far off days. Let me give special attention to “Dead Against it,” a track that Chris O’Leary calls “the product of Bowie and Erdal Kizilcay, camped out in their Montreux studio for a week, eating hamburgers and listening to Prince CDs while dashing out odd little tracks.” Chris:
But the cheap-sounding synthesizers, the tinniness of the mix, the no-frills Kizilcay drumming all fit here. “Dead” is pop seemingly made from cast-off instruments, rock and roll played on whatever Bowie had found in a toy store.
I.e. purest Bowie.
4. Reality (2003)
No story, no hype, just his best hair since 1978 and his most insouciant collection since Lodger: just a rich Manhattanite embracing his privilege, strapping on an electric guitar he had designed specially for him (and playing robust electric rhythm with it too), and covering George Harrison and Jonathan Richman songs he loved from his youth. Forgotten now, quite vital. Play “New Killer Star,” “Never Get Old,” “Bring Me the Disco King,” “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon” for confirmation. If you’re a fan, of course.
5. Heathen (2002)
Bowie’s Back, Part 3. Some albums and their PR cycles are impossible to sever. Because Bowie and Tony Visconti recorded the album in upstate New York as the Twin Towers collapsed, Bowie could insist that 9-11 didn’t inspire the album, yet in summer 2002, the season of Springsteen’s The Rising, no one but a fool would have resisted the instant PR blitz. No question Visconti’s fastidiousness results in the best produced Bowie album in twenty years, but it’s stiff and doesn’t rock enough. More tracks like “Slow Burn,” where Bowie’s vibrato can go toe to toe against any guitarist, including Pete Townshend; “A Better Future”; and the Pixies cover where Bowie plays every instrument. The followup has the goods.
6. Black Tie White Noise (1993)
Bowie’s Back, Part 1. Re-teaming with Nile Rodgers, Bowie made clear he wasn’t going to let the Chic guitarist take undue credit or any more blame than he deserved. The album sleeves send the right signal: Bowie, clutching a sax, in Sinatra/Crosby drag; on the front cover he wears more powder than my grandmother. The tracks where he honks most assiduously over house beats (“The Wedding,” “Jump They Say,” “Pallas Athena”) work best, creating a 1993 that existed nowhere but Bowie’s mind. Al Be Sure! and Morrissey didn’t need him when he substituted guitar solos for sax, or, as he did in “You’ve Been Around,” mixes Reeves Gabrels to sound like a foghorn.
7. Earthling (1997)
The sea change in the fourteen months or so since the release of 1. Outside startled me. Treated with contempt for seven years, Bowie found himself the subject of we’re-not-worthy worship by Liv Tyler in 1997. Billy Corgan, Trent Reznor, etc might have wanted a rock album; instead, they got a drums ‘n’ bass record that faffs around a bit. It didn’t sell much, but many younger friends made it their first new Bowie purchase. The fodderstomp of “Dead Man Walking,” about getting old and loving it, made the next album’s whiskery plaints look cynical. Reeves Gabrels plays listenable guitar on “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” and “Seven Years in Tibet.”
8. The Next Day (2013)
Bowie’s Back, Part 4. I got flak for arguing that his first album in a decade had no business being recorded. He could’ve salvaged “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” the title track, and “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” for an EP or, better, kept them for a ★ supplement instead of wasting them in the company of no one-asked-for-it Scott Walker pastiche “Heat” and “Boss of Me,” the most embarrassing Bowie track since anything my readers care to mention from …hours.
9. …hours. (1999)
From the flip-flops and Lynn Cheney hair to the sleeve, which a fifteen-year-old AOL subscriber would have designed with greater aplomb, …hours. reeked. Period interviews stressed Bowie’s detachment from the wintry songs he had written. Bowie wasn’t a man, so how on earth could he convince anyone he’d endured a late mid-life crisis? These quibbles wouldn’t matter if the material wasn’t as sodden, poorly sung, and bizarrely arranged; besides “Survive” and “Seven” the Bowie-Gabrels songs boast gauche synth pads and wonky solos and no strong melodies. His worst since Tonight.