David Bowie By the Threes: A 50-Year Retrospective, Part 2
When we left off Wednesday, David Bowie had reached an unprecedented commercial peak on hit 1983 album Let's Dance. As it turns out, the rest of the '80s and early '90s found the former Thin White Duke largely spinning his wheels.
1993: Bowie Back on Track During the 1980s, Bowie's fame skyrocketed, but his standing with critics seemed to get worse with each passing year. It hit its nadir with 1987's Never Let Me Down, which Bowie admitted even let him down.
Having approached a dead end with his pop sound, Bowie tried to get back to his roots by forming a band without his name attached, Tin Machine, and recording some pure garage-rock. It failed to excite many, however, because the albums just weren't very good. The band broke up just a few years later.
Without Tin Machine, Bowie decided to return to his solo career and set 1993 aside to do so. Bowie's first record back that year was Black Tie White Noise, but its reception was less than exceptional. Critics and fans were bored of Bowie by '93 and didn't know what to make of his newest record.
Black Tie White Noise is a middling affair, to be sure, but it's not as bad as many at the time felt it was. There are a lot of interesting ideas contained within, in particular on the track "You've Been Around," where Bowie mixes up club-like dance beats with an extremely talented jazz band to create a funky dance number heavily rooted in bebop.
It was a novel idea that Björk would take to its logical conclusion to much acclaim the same year, so why was Bowie hurting for success?
Bowie suspected it was due to his name and his fame. He even released some of his tracks to clubs without his name on them and they became decent hits, proving his suspicions to some extent. Whatever the reason, though, Bowie's true achievement of 1993 would come in the most unexpected way.
Later in the year, Bowie recorded the soundtrack for a little known TV miniseries titled The Buddha of Suburbia. With the soundtrack to the show, Bowie was truly unburdened by the pressure to be commercially successful, and since few would even hear the album, it didn't matter what critics thought either. The result was an experimental, electronic dance album with similar sensibilities to Bowie's late-'70s Berlin era of experimentation.
It is a stunning artistic achievement for someone many had counted out of the game by that point in his career. Unfortunately, it still remains relatively unknown in Bowie's discography. Still, it showed to Bowie devotees who managed to get their hands on a copy that they weren't wrong to stand by their hero.
2003: Bowie's Last Transmission...?
By 2003, Bowie had performed his final reinvention. After delving into industrial, electronica, jungle, and drum and bass music in the late '90s, including tours with Nine Inch Nails and Bowie dressing like some kind of British cyberpunk techno-rebel, Bowie let it all hang out. He stripped away the experimentation and started wearing the stylish three-piece suits he's now known for. He quit hiding his age behind dyed hair and makeup.
Musically, he moved into a classicist sound, recording good, solid rock music with an indie flavor to it. This was no longer innovative music, but it was the strongest music Bowie had recorded in many years. Two thousand two saw the release of Heathen, featuring covers of the Pixies, a lot of introspection, some harder rock, and a lot of throwbacks to the sound people most loved from him.
Heathen saw Bowie's commercial horizons expanding once again. It was seen as a major comeback, both in terms of sales and critical reception. With the release of the album, Bowie described himself as a "realist" and the songs reflected that newfound attitude of acceptance and forthrightness in his life.
Fittingly, Bowie released an album titled Reality in 2003. Picking up where Heathen left off, it is in my opinion the strongest Bowie album recorded since Scary Monsters in 1980. Reality is a strong summation of Bowie's career up to that point, taking a stark look at it as a whole and describing his evolution, his time on the top and his eventual death in frank terms.
Reality was the seeming punctuation mark on Bowie's career, closing out with an extended eight-minute track inspired by lounge-jazz called "Bring Me the Disco King" that seemed to be saying goodbye and ultimately accepting that Bowie had reached the peak of his career and, indeed, the end of it.
Due to unfortunate circumstances, that seemed to be it for Bowie. He launched a massive world tour starting in 2003 and ending in 2004 when he suffered a cardiac episode that required immediate surgery. Then everything went dark.
Bowie disappeared for the next decade, leaving behind a song or a performance here and there and not much else. Most felt that Bowie's career was not only over, but that he was satisfied with retirement. After all, if one could choose an album to end their career with, Reality was a more than adequate cap to a long, brilliant run.
But as you all know, 2013 marks Bowie's return to recording to put another entry into the book. Will it be as great as his previous records? Will it be worth coming back to, or should he just have left off with Reality? We'll find out in March. But one thing's for sure, you should never count the man out.
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