Music

What Have You Done For Us Lately, David Bowie?

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Photo credit: Bertrand Guay/Getty Images

Photo credit: Bertrand Guay/Getty Images

In What Have You Done For Us Lately?, we examine the recent output by legendary artists. Yeah, we’re happy when they return with a new album… but really, just how happy are we? We’ll gauge their output since 2000 (or, for less prolific artists, their last five albums), take a hard look and see how their recent material has held up… and maybe help you to find a few gems that you overlooked.

In this (or any) context, David Bowie is an interesting case. Over the past few decades, he’s been quick to align himself with younger, hipper acts including Nine Inch Nails, Arcade Fire and TV On The Radio, just to name a few. Critics treat him as if he’s more creatively vital than his peers. But is he? Like Neil Young, Bowie seems to be graded on a curve, based on the premise that he has retained his relevance and his edge more than, say, Elton John or Paul McCartney. He certainly cultivates that perception.

His latest album, The Next Day, has been greeted enthusiastically by fans and critics: Rolling Stone gave it four stars, calling it “a triumphant album.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a B, saying it’s “an excellent reminder that Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and the lunatic who sang Christmas songs with Bing Crosby have all been coexisting in the same brain for decades.” And Pitchfork gave it a 7.6, noting that Bowie’s “self-aware attraction to reinvention has served him well.”

In the 1980s, Bowie became a massive commercial force after teaming with Nile Rodgers on the Let’s Dance album, which put him smack in the middle of the MTV-driven mainstream.  He spent much of the decade in the middle of the road on Tonight, his “Dancing In The Streets” duet with Mick Jagger, his role in the Jim Henson film Labyrinth and finally, the Never Let Me Down album, which did just that, across the board, impressing neither radio programmers nor his longtime fans. In 1989, Bowie rebooted his career by forming a band, Tin Machine. After two albums, Bowie reunited with Nile Rodgers for a dance oriented album, Black Tie White Noise. And that brings us to what he’s done for us (relatively) lately.

Outside - 1995
David Bowie Outside

Outside saw Bowie reunite with Berlin-era collaborator Brian Eno, and positioned him as the forefather of the industrial rock that was hugely popular at the time. Indeed, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor remixed “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” and NIN opened on Bowie’s tour.  The album showed that Bowie still had edge – “Hallo Spaceboy” bordered on thrash metal – but for the most part, lacked great songs and buckled under the weight of the concept album’s lyrics.
Critical Response: It seemed like many critics had a hard time slamming the album at the time. Rolling Stone gave it three out of five stars, but admitted that the concept album’s “superfluous” lyrics “damn near sink the record.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a B-, saying, “Outside sounds like fodder for an industrial-music Broadway show based on Blade Runner.”
Sales: Outside peaked at  No. 21 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” hit No. 20 on Billboard‘s Modern Rock Tracks chart.
What stuck: During the Outside tour, Bowie played most of the album; on subsequent tours, he mainly played “Hallo Spaceboy” and “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson.” But “The Motel” would show up in his 2003 live sets.

Read our takes on Earthling, …hours, Heathen and Reality at Radio.com.

– Brian Ives, Radio.com

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