What Have You Done For Us Lately, David Bowie?
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
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.
Earthling – 1997
Bowie recorded 1997’s Earthling with his touring band just weeks after the Outside tour wrapped. Featuring Tin Machine’s Reeves Gabrels on guitar, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust-era sideman Mike Garson on keyboards, drummer Zack Alford and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, the album was influenced by the drum-and-bass dance music of the late ’90s, and as a result sounds a bit dated now. Still, most fans agreed that it was an improvement on Outside. And Trent Reznor returned with another remix, this time for “I’m Afraid Of Americans.”
Critical Response: Rolling Stone gave it three and a half stars, saying, “If Bowie is not the art-rock pioneer he was in the ’70s, his enduring enthusiasm for new musical adventures can be applauded.” Entertainment Weekly was more in favor of the album, giving it a solid A.
Sales: While it fared better critically than Outside, Earthling only hit No. 39 on the Billboard 200 album chart; “I’m Afraid Of Americans” hit No. 29 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart and No. 24 on the (then-called) Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales chart.
What stuck: “I’m Afraid Of Americans” is easily the album’s standout track (the Reznor remix was more popular than the album version, and even got a music video co-starring Bowie and Reznor), remaining in Bowie’s setlists for years. “Battle For Britain (The Letter)” got some play as well, but the album has a number of gems, including “Seven Years In Tibet” and “Dead Man Walking.”
…hours – 1999
The cover of hours… hinted at where Bowie was going. The short-haired Bowie pictured on the cover of the high-energy Earthling lay (seemingly) dead in the arms of a newer, longer-haired, mellower Bowie. And while the album had at least one rocker – “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” – most of the album was more contemplative, even adult (if not “adult contemporary”). The first single, “Thursday’s Child,” is one of Bowie’s loveliest ballads, but sadly, didn’t find an audience.
Critical Response: Rolling Stone gave it four stars, saying, “As always, Bowie’s eccentric sense of melody twists around the ear like a space oddity, getting under the skin, plucking the heartstrings and stirring up feelings of alienation we never knew we had,” and also that it is “an album that improves with each new hearing.” Try it yourself and see.
Sales: A dud: It only reached No. 47 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
What stuck: Within a few years, Bowie dropped all …hours songs from his set. A shame: “Thursday’s Child” and “Seven” hold up to his great ’70s ballads.
Heathen - 2002
Bowie reunited with producer Tony Visconti for the first time since 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) for this one, and positioned it as a sequel to 1977’s Low (also produced by Visconti). To make the point, he celebrated Heathen‘s release by playing both albums in their entirety at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom.
Critical Response: The critics were definitely on board with this one. Rolling Stone gave it three and a half stars, saying that Heathen “is the sound of Bowie essentially covering himself – to splendid, often moving effect.” In other words, Bowie wasn’t doing anything really new… but they liked it. Entertainment Weekly gave a B+, while Pitchfork gave it a 7.8 out of 10, calling it (somewhat vaguely) “the best Bowie release in years.”
Sales: The public seemed a little more interested in this one, and the album hit No. 14 on the Billboard 200 album chart. A remix of “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” reached No. 42 on Billboard‘s Dance/Club Play Songs chart.
What Stuck: The real keepers on this album were the covers: Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You” (featuring Dave Grohl on guitar) and especially the Pixies’ “Cactus.” Bowie kept a bunch of songs from this album in his setlists for years to come, including “Afraid,” “Heathen (The Rays)” and “Slip Away,” showing that he felt more strongly about the album than he did about, say, …hours.
Reality - 2003
Bowie clearly enjoyed his reunion with Tony Visconti on Heathen, and stuck with the producer for the follow-up (Visconti also produced The Next Day). The album sonically recalled Bowie and Visconti’s work on Scary Monsters, but with more grown-up lyrics.
Critical Response: Rolling Stone gave it three stars. Pitchfork graded it a 7.3, half a point lower than what they gave Heathen, saying, “Bowie’s musical ideas, not filtered through any sort of trend-grab, are unfailingly unique, and that alone should cement his continued role as vibrant, modern artist for years to come.” No one knew that he would fade from the scene for nearly a decade.
Sales: Reality hit No. 29 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
What Stuck: Bowie hasn’t performed often since wrapping up his tour for this album, but it’s easy to see him keeping “New Killer Star” in his sets.
The Verdict: While nothing Bowie has done in the past two decades has approached the level of genius he regularly hit in the ’70s, he has a number of great songs that easily hold up to his classics. If you’ve slept on recent Bowie, check out “Hallo Spaceboy,” “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” “I’m Afraid Of Americans,” “Thursday’s Child,” “Seven,” “Dead Man Walking,” “Cactus” and “New Killer Star.”