How Bowie could not give everything away

The temptation was to return to blog posting on Monday 11th January. This was the day the world at large heard of the passing of the music icon, artist, rock god, known to most of us as David Bowie. But jumping in with a somewhat raw statement was a thing many seemed to be doing. Many articles interesting to read, but with a slight whiff of “getting my angle out first”, before someone else does. And did I have anything different to say anyway?

I listened to “Blackstar” the final David Bowie album prior to his passing, on its day of release, David’s birthday, the 8th of January. Before release I had read reviews, most of which said the same thing, little bit of a departure, return to form, generally pretty good, the jazz musicians here have a good thing going on. I played it twice that day. It was not underwhelming as hyped albums often are. It is interesting, but does need a few plays to open up, usually the sign of a good album. It has since grown on me some more. It is somewhat different compared to preceding album “The next day” which whilst enjoyable, was a fair nod to the past. This one different musicians, a different sound not really “bit of the weird”, but still some mystery, still engaging. A bit, well, Bowie really. Somewhat of a delight.

But there was somewhat of a feeling something a little off. Not in the quality of the album but the messages as an art piece. The black star, a metaphor? Paying respects? Remembrance of the Starman? Note, also a cancer reference (although I didn’t know that at the time). The bleak feel of both music and lyrics, and slightly detached lyrical references such as “Look at me, I’m in heaven”. The Lazarus video. But also interesting that choice of last track. I’ve always liked the album as a concept and always found the choice of the final track something to think about. If this is the final thing you do, or at least until the next one, then that track is what you sign off with. With Backstar we got “I can’t give everything away”.

Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent

The most “pop” song on the album. Using the classic pop song trick of saying less but seemingly saying more. Well more to interpret, so more questions anyway. Listen to the chorus with “I can’t give everything”, then as it pauses before “away”, and wonder what he is actually referring to. Good songs are often written to provide a relatable thing to draw us in, and ambiguity or space left for our own interpretation. This album seemed very layered off the first few listens, and even more so now we know that he knew, that this might be his last. It makes for poignant listening now, especially that last track. Telling us something, and having a laugh with its possibilities as an art piece. And in that, tellingly, was one of my favorite things about Bowie.

As anyone familiar with Bowie’s music knows, a journey through the albums in order yields a journey through different musical styles, different characters, different moods and messages. But aside from inhabiting different roles, David has consistently worked with different musicians. Musicians who bring something different to his songs and melodies, making an easier transistion to work different ideas or go in different directions, from what had been recorded before. Often to great effect. The seventies in particular yielded a run of albums that might be unparalleled in both quality and styles. Try Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Diamond dogs, Station to station, Low, as just some. The first two alone would make most careers! Arguably the eighties and nineties are more of a mixed bag, but plenty of high points in there. But what makes them good is not the ability to change, experiment and try something new, but the ability to connect. Good songs engage the listener in some way. Words might tell a story, or share a common experience or feeling, but also allow the listener to bring their perspective into it. Maybe a phrase in the verse or chorus when attached to a melody, or sung a certain way, connects emotionally. On the flip side, the music might hook in the listener via a myriad of ways. A catchy melody or beat, a guitar riff, or a new noise, a certain tempo or key. If you get this with both the words and music you get good and often great work. Bowie had this  understanding with music. He had this great way of bending convention, creating mystery and inner beauty, drawing in all kinds of different people who realized that yes, there is a place for them. He could change styles yes, but still with an eye on engaging the listener. Making that connection. Highlighting the different places in art, and inviting in the different people who inhabit or enjoy them. When you can do this with different musicians and make the connections consistently then it also brings something else. Possibilities.

There are a lot of bands or musicians out there, we all have our favorites, who mainly work on variations on a theme. Similar stuff each time. Sometimes that not a bad thing, sometimes it is, giving the impression of nothing else to offer or a creative tank run dry. Bowie though, always had possibilities. Somewhere else he might go. Sure some might say “well it’s possible anyone might do this or do that” in an anything is possible sense. But with Bowie things were possible in a real sense. He was not afraid to go somewhere different. It made things exciting, interesting, worth experiencing and seeing where the connections might lead. What different layers might exist, what new discoveries  might be found. He influenced people, and sometimes changed their lives just by showing us what possibilities are, what could be realized. What being different is. Not everything worked but a lot of it did. His hit ratio better than most. Wonderful quality control. Wonderful talent. It really did feel like the possibilities were endless because he was that good. His body of work speaks to this, as does his sphere of influence. And he always understood that in creating the layers, you leave a bit of room for the listener to bring themselves into it. That bit of mystery. That bit of ambiguity. Don’t give everything away, even if you want to. That last track on Blackstar, no? Even at the end he wanted to explore that space between connections and possibilities. We might ask, is that what he really meant? And he might answer that is all he ever meant.

David Bowie I always loved your work. As one of the true icons in a musical sense, you were right up there at the top. After time away from music, from 2003 till the next day, I came to appreciate your work even more, if that is possible. More reason to enjoy what you brought to us. Blackstar your final gift on your terms. Your death, a loss to many. Thank you for the art and the inspiration, the connections and the possibilities. Thanks for not giving it all away and leaving us more to find and learn about, and understand. Thank you for the music.

P.S. Just yesterday I was listening to the Ziggy Stardust album for the, I don’t know, 500th time. I still notice things going on with the vocals or guitars, and how the sound is used that I had not noticed before. So good…


7 comments on “How Bowie could not give everything away

  1. Great piece, Elliot! But more than that, I’m so glad you’re back 🙂

    • Elliot says:

      Thank you. Don’t know how often I will post. Probably just whenever I feel like it. How was the tour stuff? We should catch up over last year albums!

      • Whenever you feel like is usually a good way to go 🙂

        The tour’s done well thus far. We’re working on the 3rd edition of it which should happen early March.

        So much great music. Two jazz albums that I was impressed with: Kamasi Washington’s “Epic” which made its way to so many lists, and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s very original tribute to Charlie Parker, “Bird Calls”. There were Courtney Barnett’s “Sometimes I Think….”, Lianne La Havas’s “Blood”, Torche’s “Restarter”, Spoon’s “They Want My Soul”, Father John Misty’s “I Love You Honeybear”, Chelsea Wolfe’s “Abyss”, Myrkur’s “M”…so much! But the one that I played the most was (and I still play that a lot) was Deafheaven’s “New Bermuda”. What about you?

      • Elliot says:

        I have that Kamasi Washington on my list to play. Not got there yet. I also saw Courtney Barnett supporting Blur at the Hollywood bowl. Her “Split sea of Peas” double EP is good also, and actually the Blur album was better than what I was expecting. Other things I liked, Sleater Kinney “No Cities to Love” (was playing that a lot first half of the year). Low “One & sixes” (maybe their best so far), Built to Spill “Untethered Moon” (I just love their guitar jam style tracks), Destroyer “Poison Season” (don’t know if you know him but the name couldn’t be further from the music – not too far removed from FJ Misty). The Unthanks “Mount the air” (a quite beautiful album), Titus Andronicus “The most lamentable tragedy”. Ibeyi “Ibeyi”, and Julia Holter’s album “Have you in my wilderness” both nice also. On the dance / Electronic front, I enjoyed Floating Points “Elaenia”, and maybe the most pleasant surprise (as I thought I would hate it) was Jamie XX’s “In Colour”.

      • Nice! I like most of what you have in the list. Must get around to the Julia Holter album. Not much into Electronica yet – I listen to it but don’t have strong opinions on it.

  2. jmmcdowell says:

    I’ve never been a huge Bowie fan, but I’ve enjoyed a fair bit of his work. And I suspect his canon is one that will stand the test of time. It’s great to see you again, and I’m looking forward to more posts!

    • Elliot says:

      Well I was never much into the nineties stuff at the time (more the seventies and early eighties) so some of that is still something I can discover in more depth (with the benefit of age and different point of view now). But yeah, some of his stuff is amazing. – Thanks for the comment. I may post from time to time, but no schedule. How is the writing going? I shall try pop over to your blog and get an update.

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