The Perverse (and Ultimately Perfect) Promotion of David Bowie
A decade-long disappearing act, zero press, no tour dates and not a single status update to promote new album "The Next Day" (out Tuesday): As ever, the Thin White Duke works in mysterious ways.
When it comes to making a comeback, David Bowie seems to be doing it all wrong. At the same time, from a fan’s point of view -- and maybe ultimately a marketing one -- that's what makes the whole thing feel so delightfully right.
First, there was that whole business about taking himself off the market completely for 10 years -- a strategy that might drive up the price of fine art but hasn’t proven so successful in monetizing a mortal pop career. Then, there were the NDAs everyone working on the project for the last two years had to sign. Why allow anyone to know you’re hard at work when they’re spreading rumors that, at 66, you’ve been too infirm to make music since your 2004 angioplasty, right?
For the first single, "Where Are We Now?," Bowie chose the one sluggishly elegiac song on an otherwise rocking album, figuring that there’s no teaser quite like the kind in which you genuinely sound like an old man. His new album cover basically consists of an old album cover with a post-it note on top. And now that The Next Day's March 12 release date has arrived, his media campaign consists of doing exactly zero interviews, to be followed by zero touring and zero personal tweets or status updates from the artist himself.
Kid musicians, do not try this at home when it comes time to advance your own career comeback two or three years hence.
It’s all genius, of course, even if there may not be any other artists in the world who could turn a non-publicity campaign into an effective publicity campaign. Pity the next aging rocker who goes into his manager’s office insisting that if he refrains from engaging the press or social media, the intrigue factor will go through the roof. But we are starved for mystery, at least in the case of someone whose mysteriousness seems intrinsic and not particularly contrived.
Justin Timberlake almost had the right idea, when he let the world believe that he really wasn’t much into music-making after a seven-year layoff, before springing a corrective press release and single on everyone. But he made up for lost time by showing up at every ribbon-cutting, figuratively speaking, and with his actual album launch still more than a week away, it’s hard to escape the feeling of dread that Timberlake will have his face in ours for the next 24 months solid. How could you not want to give Bowie’s album five stars just in thanks for him leaving us the hell alone?
Fortunately, The Next Day is stellar stuff regardless of whether Bowie’s reclusiveness has already put you in a charitable frame of mind. If it were his first album in two years instead of 10, granted, there might not be such an insane rush to proclaim it his best in decades. Yet it is, whatever pushes us to arrive at that conclusion. And that’s true regardless of the fact that it doesn’t really cohere that much as an album but is just a terrific assortment of unrelated songs.
If you’re looking for a personal statement, you’re coming to the wrong place, however natural it would be to expect one at his age and after his time off. John Lennon put out Double Fantasy after a mere five-year hiatus, and even if no one expects Bowie to give Iman half the tracks on his comeback, we might have thought he’d have softened enough to write about the daughter he’d been taking time off to raise. Or maybe this should have been his statement about aging and mortality, a la Bob Dylan returning with Time Out of Mind after his own heart scare; the nostalgic "Where Are We Now?" certainly seemed to point in that direction. But: Nahhhh.
The Next Day is both vital-sounding and elusive, which is a hell of a hat trick if you can manage it. It’s quickly evident that most of the songs are character sketches and not at all autobiographical, and only a few of them give up their narratives easily. "(You Will) Set the World on Fire" is clearly set in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, with its name-dropping of Bobby, Baez and Von Ronk. "I’d Rather Be High" gives us a young man not at all happy about his military service. "How Does the Grass Grow" is another military-themed song, taking its chorus from a Marine bayonet-school chant. “Valentine’s Day” seems to describe an impending school shooter; that’s "Valentine’s" as in massacre. Bowie spends a lot of time writing about young people: "Dirty Boys" describes male juvenile delinquency, while the heroine of "Love Is Lost" appears to be a 22-year-old drama queen who’s feeling old before her time. "Boss Of Me" is a seemingly simple look at sexual politics, but with a Steely Dan-style twist: The narrator wonders how "a small-town girl like you" conquered him, but by the more ominous bridge, he’s reversing the tables and knocking the blue skies right out of her.
It gets deeper and darker than this, on an album that has absolutely none of the domestic tranquility we’d like to think Bowie might have been enjoying in his semi-retirement. "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," a second single, which arrived accompanied by a wonderful video co-starring Tilda Swinton, is a spooky look at celebrity that’s pretty much the bleaker counterpoint to the Kinks’ celebratory "Celluloid Heroes." The stars of the title -- some of whom are named: Brigitte for old time’s sake, Brad for new time’s sake -- are seen both as victims and predators, "satyrs and their child wives" who are "sexless and unaroused." Is it too much to hope this will be theme music for next year’s Golden Globes?
The title track gives us a monarch of some sort being hounded, possibly to his death, by priests. The narrator of the weirdest cut, "If You Can See Me," threatens such destruction that he might be the devil himself, promising to "burn all your books and the problems they cause." In the angriest track, "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die," Bowie seems to be addressing a former spy or informant of some sort who has ruined a lot of innocent lives, with the singer urging him on toward suicide, since assassination hasn’t come soon enough.
"Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans," this isn’t. He’s watching the wheels, all right -- watching them come right off the bus, on an album laden with a lot of what the title track calls "that doomsday song."
Fortunately, the sense of near-constant danger in the lyrics extends to the nervous, bristling music, too, which takes shape in about a dozen different ways that harken back to different phases of Bowie’s career, especially his peak decade of the early 1970s through early 1980s. There’s little of the languor and/or electronic focus of the projects that preceded his semi-retirement. The title track immediately starts off with echoes of the slashing guitars of the Scary Monsters period, with Earl Slick making a return. But if you prefer the more melodious Bowie of the glam-rock days, there’s a whole mid-section of the album that doesn’t sound that distant from Ziggy Stardust, with Bowie singing higher, bringing the squawky baritone sax back and invoking the ghost of Mick Ronson once or twice. "Valentine’s Day," "I’d Rather Be High," "Boss Of Me" and "Dancing Out in Space" are the tunes Bowie would have released first if he'd wanted to go for a radio hit instead of turning this whole release strategy into an art project. And there’s one track unlike anything you’ve heard him do before: "If You Can See Me" is jerky prog-rock, in the style of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, that seems no less epic just because it starts fading out before the three-minute mark.
Isn’t there a single song where Bowie resorts to sentiment of some sort? Well, maybe, if you like bonus tracks. "So She," which appears only on the deluxe edition, has the album’s sweetest melody and might even be a love song. Why is it not on the regular edition? Hard to figure, unless Bowie decided it didn’t fit in with the darker tone of the rest of the album. Likewise, perhaps, there’s a Japan-only bonus track, "God Bless the Girl," which we haven’t been able to get hold of but at least one overseas commenter said was one of the best songs Bowie’s ever written. If he did purposely hold back some of his catchiest and most emotionally open new songs from the main album, it would sort of fit his slightly perverse pattern.
His "true" face isn’t in these grooves, any more than it is in his non-existent interviews. And once you get past any initial disappointment that Bowie hasn’t made a grand testament to life lessons, it’s easier to appreciate what he has done: keep us guessing even as he keeps us satisfied. Counterintuitive as it may be in the tell-all 2010s, we only want to get so far inside the compound that is Bowie’s brain. Because hasn’t loving the Thin White Duke really always been about loving the alien?