David Bowie's The Next Day marks the return of the world's greatest chameleon
|Artwork by Chris Strouth|
Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.
There is a quote from the actor Cary Grant about what's it like to be him: "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." That has to be pretty true for David Bowie. You have to think that the hardest part of being a "living legend" is the living part. It's hard to think of Bowie as just a guy, because he's got a unique place in the hipster cool rock guy idiom.
He is an artist, and that isn't meant in a pretentious way. Rather, he functions more like an artist did before the era of the rock star. However, this next statement is pretentious, so bear it out. You can't really compare Bowie to most musicians; what he does is about so much more than the music itself, it's persona and image. His work is more like Picasso or Cocteau than Springsteen or Dylan. They don't reinvent, they evolve, and while the songwriting is always good, it never strays that far from the point of origin.
The Next Day is his first record in ten years. Its appearance had listeners more excited than they had been in decades for one of his records. When last we saw him it was with the record Hours, which didn't receive the greatest of critical reception. See, that's the problem of being "David Bowie" -- good can't really be good enough.
But David Bowie has only his innovative creativity to blame for becoming sort of the baseline for cool. His first hit was the saving grace of the hippie movement. "Space Oddity" used the space age to lead a pack of soon-to-be acid casualities away from the sanctimonious self-indulgence of the flower power to the plain, old-fashioned self-indulgence of the glam movement. Ziggy Stardust played guitar, while oddly Bowie really didn't. Then when the world went disco, he did too -- granted it was wearing the Thin White Duke's wardrobe. The drugs stayed the same, but the music changed as he entered the Berlin records Low, Heroes, and Lodger, a move guaranteed to mess up the class of '73.
As the idealism of the '60s faded, and the narcissistic answer to the greatest generation entered the sellout '80s, Bowie sold out too, but mostly stadiums. Almost as quickly, he turned around and formed a punk rock band (Tin Machine) and worked to find a voice. It's hard to be a voice of rebellion when everyone is rebelling too. Grunge gave way, and he made his best albums in a decade.
He latched onto MTV like Jolson on the Talkies. He became more than a musician, he became a star. It's the kind of celebrity that we don't make anymore, for better and worse in equal yet unfair measure.
Even the roll-out of The Next Day the past couple months shows a return to prominence in terms of stirring buzz. The first single "Where are We Now?" was released only as a download on iTunes, and came without any warning whatsoever on Bowie's 66th birthday. With a truly cryptic video, it's not so much a revelation but an unexpected visit from an old friend, of course an old friend cloaked in enough symbolism to make David Lynch feel off his game. The song is rife with references to the parts of Germany where Bowie made three of his best records in the '70s. But as pointed out in a few places on the web, it describes a train ride that really couldn't be.
In this era of all news all the time, it's amazing that this could just sort of sneak in. So began the intrepid look for clues. In the video he's wearing a T-shirt with the image "m/s Song of Norway" -- the cruise ship built in 1970 for Royal Caribbean, aka the cruise line that famously used Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" as its theme, and then gave it whole new meaning this fall with multiple cruise ship catastrophes.
The details are really unimportant, what's really interesting is that it's a discussion people are having, with the sort of fervor that had previously been reserved only for things like Lost. In a world of information overload, it's the least plugged-in that's king. This is something Bowie certainly understands, since he was the first to basically form his own site, a gated paid community for all things Bowie -- like a porn site for Bowie fetishists.