Saturday, 3 October 2020

David Bowie - The Final Years (2013-2016)

This is the last of my phase-by-phase batches of David Bowie album reviews and covers his last two albums, plus the posthumous EP, No Plan.

The Next Day (2013)

The Next Day/Dirty Boys/The Stars (Are Out Tonight)/Love Is Lost/Where Are We Now/Valentine's Day/If You Can See Me/I'd Rather Be High/Boss of Me/Dancing Out In Space/How Does The Grass Grow?/(You Will) Set The World On Fire/You Feel So Lonely You Could Die/Heat   

"No lyrics, no melodies and all working titles. This is how everything begins with him" - Tony Visconti

This was an album nobody expected. Most had accepted that Reality would be the final studio album from the now-reclusive, not too healthy David Bowie. Just when many seemed to feel he had retired, almost unheralded, he put out this remarkable album. It had been recorded, almost in secret, over the previous few months. Personally, it is by far my favourite of the post-1990 albums. No question. This is a special album. I am not sure about the cover though, slapping the title over the old "Heroes" cover. That doesn't work for me. I would rather just a plain white cover and the title in black. That is a minor point, however.

Old mate and producer Tony Visconti tells an interesting story as to how the album was created -

"....Sterling Campbell was on drums, I was on bass, David was on keyboards, Gerry Leonard was on guitar. By the end of five days we had demoed up a dozen songs. Just structures. No lyrics, no melodies and all working titles. This is how everything begins with him. Then he took them home and we didn't hear another thing from him for four months...."

                                                                                        Even all these years later, Bowie was still working in a similar style to how he was described as having done so on both The Man Who Sold The World and Young Americans.

This is what he eventually came up with - starting with the infectious, strident The Next Day which is instantly likeable. For me, it has echoes of 87 And Cry and Time Will Crawl from 1987's unpopular Never Let Me Down and also a vague feel of some of the short tracks from Low, if they had been extended.

A favourite of mine is the solemnly atmospheric and staccato Dirty Boys, with its lyrics that in many ways seem to hark back to the late sixties material - all about cricket bats and boys going to Finchley Fair then smashing some windows. It is quite a uniquely appealing latter-era Bowie song.

The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is an energetic, upbeat, rhythmic number with hints of some of the Reality material about it, but the acoustic guitar underpinning it takes us way back to the early seventies. 

Love Is Lost is a huge track, with a thumping slow drum sound, menacing keyboards, industrial guitars and a sonorous Bowie vocal, together with portentous lyrics. It is a magnificently inscrutable yet stimulating song. Imagine this on "Heroes". A true latter-day Bowie classic.


The haunting, mysterious Where Are We Now evokes Berlin once more, speaking of Potsdamer Platz in a hugely atmospheric, slowly grandiose song. Let's be honest, Bowie hadn't put out stuff like this that made your spine tingle like this for years. Yes, there had been good material on the last thirty years of albums, of course there had, but anything like this? Maybe not. I remember listening to this and feeling a real excitement over a Bowie album for the first time since Scary Monsters. That is not to say I didn't like the others, I liked many of them, but this album seemed very much like a David Bowie we had not heard from for years returning.

Valentine's Day is another corker. Backed by some rock 'n' roll "la-la-la" backing vocals, some excellent rock guitar and featuring some perplexing lyrics about someone called Valentine, whose identity we never knew.

The dance music rhythms experimented with on 1. Outside and Earthling return for the frantic, beats per minute groove of If You Can See Me. Lyrically, however, it is much stronger than some of that material, particularly that form Earthling. The remarkable thing about this album is that great tracks just keep coming. There isn't a duff track on it. 

The catchy I'd Rather Be High, with its dreamy sixties-influenced parts, is another one. It has a great melodic guitar riff too. "I stumbled to the graveyard and I lay down by my parents..." is a moving line from what is a largely autobiographical song.

The addictive Boss Of Me has Bowie singing over a staccato, low saxophone-influenced tune about a female boss, oddly. At this point, it is worth noting that the sound is truly excellent throughout this album - clear, warm and bassy. This song provides a good example of that.

The jaunty Dancing Out In Space keeps the quality coming with another one with Reality echoes. It is also impossible catchy too. 

How Does The Grass Grow? has a searing "Heroes"-style guitar intro which continues throughout this pulsating, rocking track. It ends with some Low-style bass on the fade-out. 

(You Will) Set The World On Fire is an upbeat, singalong number that reminds one of the Diamond Dogs era, slightly.

You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is beautifully anthemic and, considering the near future, extremely sad. Musically, it has a sumptuous bass line. It ends, again sadly, with the introductory drumbeat from 1972's Five Years. There are echoes of Rock 'n' Roll Suicide throughout the song too.

The album ends with the somnolent Heat, with its evocative, beguiling lyric about "my father ran the prison". Was he referring to his own father, or merely writing an observational song? The latter, apparently.

** The bonus tracks feature the sixties guitar riffage of the energetic So She; an intoxicating instrumental in Plan and the effervescent guitar-driven rock of I'll Take You There. All these tracks are up there with those on the actual album. The pounding electronic rock of Atomica from the extended Next Day Extra EP is excellent too, as is The Informer. There are some entertaining remixes too, particularly I'd Rather Be High (Venetian Mix).

Blackstar (2016)

Blackstar/'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore/Lazarus/Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)/Girl Loves Me/Dollar Days/I Can't Give Everything Away 

"Look up here - I'm in Heaven" - David Bowie        

This, then, is David Bowie's deathbed valedictory release. For that reason, it is an extremely difficult album to review. It is just seven tracks of avant-garde jazz-influenced material. Bowie had, no doubt, wanted to do an album like this anyway, impending demise or not. Given its incredible genesis, planned meticulously by the dying Bowie, it gets lifted to a position way above the sum of its parts. It becomes a truly remarkable epitaph.
Blackstar is a wonderfully bleak and very atmospheric track, all full of portentous gravitas, strong drum beats, deep, sonorous saxophone parts and a typically haughty vocal from Bowie. There are also monk-like chanted backing vocals. The whole thing takes on a holy ambience. The bit where the pace suddenly changes half way through and he sings "something happened on the day he died" and the melody suddenly takes on a seventies feel is just so poignant.

'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore (taking its title, almost verbatim, from a seventeenth century John Ford drama "Tis A Pity She's A Whore"). Bowie's song bears no relation to the play and is a frantic piece of avant-garde jazz rock, with high-pitched saxophones swirling around all over the place and perplexing lyrics. It is highly enjoyable though, as too is the soulful, saxophone and guitar-driven Lazarus with its death-knell solemn drumbeat and its "look up here - I'm in Heaven.." now iconic opening line. "Everybody knows me now..." sings Bowie, plaintively, as the drums continue and the saxophone floats all around. It really is a heartbreaking listen. However, taking it out of context, and viewed objectively it is a damn good track. The end has a rubbery, intoxicating bass line and some cutting guitar breaks that enhance it even more.


Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) is another lyrically mystifying one. It was released considerably earlier than the rest of the album, in October 2014, and had many scratching their heads over the seven minutes of jazz meets dance rhythm meets haunting lyrics. Not expecting Bowie's demise at that point, reaction to it was definitely mixed. They should have known Bowie better than that, by then. Had they known what was coming up in a few years, it would have received a different reception.

Girl Loves Me is a slow-paced, mournful lament sung over a huge, powerful slow drum beat with some echoey vocals. "Where the fuck did Monday go?" questions Bowie, several times, in oddly vulgar fashion. None of the material on this album has anything like the instant appeal of the previous album, it has to be said, but that has always been the case with Bowie albums. Rarely is one just like the previous one.

Dollar Days is an endearing song, with a lovely saxophone solo and, despite its lightness of touch (compared to the other material) still carries a considerable poignancy. "I'm dying to...." sings Bowie, continually, with a profound double meaning. It segues, via some shuffling drums, into I Can't Give Everything Away, a fetching, typically Bowie song with clear echoes, I feel, of the track Never Let Me Down, particularly in its harmonica part. Some jazzy saxophone adds to the experience too. This was the final track on the final album from David Bowie. Goodbye, then, you strange, ethereal, distant man who has been part of my life from that same distance since 1972, when I bought Ziggy Stardust as a fourteen year-old. I quite like the fact that David Bowie leaves us with some adventurous jazz sounds flying around over his repeated "I can't give everything away" line. He ended on a song that pushed the boundaries. As indeed he should.

This is a bold, experimental album that would have been given critical kudos anyway, despite its sad derivation. Many, at the time, despite the situation, found it dull or needlessly experimentational. If they thought that, then they didn't understand David Bowie. It was always that way. The same people threw up their hands and shook their heads upon the release of Low. Three years on, it can be listened to with fresh ears and it has a real appeal that begs more listens.

No Plan (2017)

Lazarus/No Plan/Killing A Little Time/When I Met You

"Everybody knows me now" - David Bowie

This was the last release of "new" studio material from the great David Bowie. Three tracks that did not appear on Blackstar and one that did. To be honest, they probably could have been included on Blackstar and added to its atmosphere.

The EP begins with the atmospheric, haunting, valedictory Lazarus from Blackstar. Most people will be familiar with this wonderful and moving track. It is soulful, saxophone and guitar-driven, with its death-knell solemn drumbeat and its "look up here - I'm in Heaven.." now iconic opening line. "Everybody knows me now..." sings Bowie, plaintively, as the drums continue and the saxophone floats all around. It really is a heartbreaking listen. However, taking it out of context, and viewed objectively it is a damn good track. The end has a rubbery, intoxicating bass line and some cutting, stabbing guitar breaks that enhance it even more.

No Plan is a sombre, plaintive and sonorous song with that typical, slightly haughty and grandiose Bowie vocal. It is beautiful too. It also has a shuffling drumbeat and that "Heroes"-style deep saxophone sound that is so very evocative.


The slightly angry, staccato Killing A Little Time is full of dense rhythms and a paranoid-sounding vocal from Bowie. It is full of tense instrumentation. It is a "grower" that needs listening to several times before it gets into your system, but it does get there and I now find that I really like its edginess.

When I Met You is a more instantly appealing number that summons up the spirit of Scary Monsters and Lodger, for me, anyway. It also has a feel of some of the material on The Next Day.

I said goodbye to David Bowie at the end of my review of Blackstar, so no more farewells are needed here. Bowie aficionados need this EP, though, to add to that album and complete the story of this remarkable, life-affirming artist.

DAVID BOWIE 1947-2016


David Bowie "best of" compilations are probably best served by this lot:-

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