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David Bowie's The Next Day marks the return of the world's greatest chameleon

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.

David Bowie's The Next Day marks the return of the world's greatest chameleon

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.

If modern media is a wave, then David Bowie is the Duke. Shooting the curl in perfect time and tempo and never mismanaging the wave; Never Let Me Down and The Linguini Incident notwithstanding.

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.

 

The second video, "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," which costars Tilda Swinton -- a fact that kills a conspiracy theory that they might be the same person -- is chock-full of insight to persona. It also dismantles a number of myths about Mr. Bowie's health- that he was practically bedridden, or had Alzheimers. Which, given the near motionlessness of the first video, didn't seem totally improbable.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the cover by Jonathon Branbook. It's the Heroes album cover with a white square over it. Heroes is crossed out and The Next Day added. In my mind it might be the best cover since Peter Saville's Blue Monday diskette for New Order.

The record is produced by Tony Visconti, and it feels like it. There are the Eno-esque memories but in so many ways the production feels bigger, less precious, intellectual but retaining certain rawness. It is the sum of experiences creating a new whole; it's Siddhartha returning to the river.

This is a record that not every artist could make; it reminds me of other Cooperstown guys like Paul Simon, Nick Lowe and Elton John. Though they are making some of the best records of their life, it's not about hits -- because we don't have hits now. We have the occasional craze (i.e.: the Harlem Shake -- a song that you have to figure we'll be hearing about again in a year and a half when the New Yorker writes the inevitable piece about how Baauer made like 20 bucks off the worldwide phenomenon). But the audience is getting older and while some of the kids are going to follow along, it's mostly playing to the choir, but if that choir is big enough that's not such a bad gig.

David Bowie's The Next Day marks the return of the world's greatest chameleon

It's a record that feels so genre-free -- not a bit of this and a bit of that. Rather, it's a seamless combination of electronics and rock that's unfamiliar yet extremely comfortable. It's a look back, but not resting on that -- introspective, but still searching for the next thing. I don't think this is going to make any new converts to the cult of Bowie, and if you only love Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust, then you're still going to only love those records. But if you're open, you may just find that this rekindles your love.

When you're the world's greatest chameleon, what disguise can you put on that's going to really surprise the audience other than the truth? Rather than records like Hours and Twilight that seemed to be about trying to play to a marketplace that lost its way, The Next Day seems more like the marketplace doesn't matter. David Bowie is just going to make what he wants, and you can dance if you want to. To quote from the lead off single " Where are we now? /The moment you know /You know, you know " I still want to know where he wants to go next.


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