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…

The point when you realise it is better than you thought

It’s a bit like parts of my college and university years in a box.

I’m still thinking about “The blog post trail”, so I will pick this one up at a later point. Today something else. It is a bit music orientated so some of you may wish to press like and move along. Or perhaps you are interested in what I have to say today…

With many things in life, there comes a point when you realise something has changed without you being aware of it. Perhaps you are too familiar and find it difficult to step back and evaluate with fresh eyes. Maybe the change has been subtle to your eyes, like the way you don’t see your child grow day to day. Whatever the reason, it happens, then one day you get a fresh reference point, and realise things have changed. It is like listening to a music album again that you previously disregarded, and realising that it actually, is very, very, good.

Recently I purchased the box set “21” by the English band Blur. If you are from the UK, you will almost certainly have heard of them. They are held in such high regard these days, that they played a concert as part of the Olympic closing celebrations, in Hyde park, just across the city from where the Olympic closing ceremony was taking place. It was available the next day on itunes (and on special CD editions coming soon). If you live in the US, you may well be familiar with “Song 2” (Whoooo Hoo). If you’re a music fan in the US, you likely know of Gorillaz, that Damon Albarn was the main musical whizz behind the music, and had discovered how good Blur actually were by checking out his back catalogue. You may even be familliar with some of the solo work from guitarist, Graham Coxon.

Myself I was a fan from quite early on, although maybe not right at the very beginning. I knew of a few songs including “Theres no other way” but not taken much notice. Then at some point, as I was getting into Indie music about this time, I got with the single “For Tomorrow”. It really struck a chord and I was with them from that point on. The second album “Modern Life is Rubbish”, contained that track, and listening to it now, the version in the box set is excellent, it might be my favourite Blur album. This album was a reaction to music coming out of the US, e.g. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, et al, and a poor US tour they had experienced. They were in many ways still trying to find their voice as a band, and responded with this, the first in a Trilogy of “British life” albums. The second album of the trilogy, pretty much a perfect pop album “Parklife” propelled them into the British mainstream and was actually a key album in “Indie” music becoming the more mainstream thing it is in the UK today. The feud with the other big Brit band Oasis (more on that later) also provided an interesting focal point. That album is arguably their best.

The next four albums finished up the “British” trilogy with a mish-mash of styles (The Great escape), sounded a bit more american indie rock (Blur), a bit more loose, experimental, a more jamming style (13), ending with an album mostly recorded without founding member and guitarist Graham (Think Tank). All four albums sound completely different to each other.

The box set, doubles up each album (if buying the CD version) to contain a second disk of B-sides, fan singles, one off singles, and pretty much everything else released at the time. It also contains four extra disks of unreleased tracks, demos, and rehearsals. I’m still to get to those four. What it did give me chance to do was to play everything again, including the second disks as I had many of the singles, in order. The progression through seven albums is amazing. There are the odd duff tracks (obviously more amongst the b-sides etc), but generally speaking, no drop in quality, if anything, an increase. What amazed me more was that I had always been a fan, but now I was looking at them again virtually with fresh eyes. Blur had a progression similar to that experienced by the Beatles (and I’m not directly comparing the two), albeit with slightly different types of music and influences, and not the “one of the originals” position in pop / rock history. You can clearly see the music change, and the wealth of ideas. I realised that there catalogue stacks up against many of the best bands. To illustrate, try to choose the best 15 or even best 20 tracks. There is so much choice, it is not an easy job. After I had came to this realisation, I spotted this article on Stereogum, which had the same problem trying to find the best 10. It also was an admission that yes, Blur had not been big in the US, being late to the party in that respect, but their catalogue sure did need revisiting to see what you were missing. And it sure has some highlights.

Back in the mid nineties, as Blur released “Parklife”, new rivals Oasis released their debut “Definitely Maybe”, a critically acclaimed album and at the time the biggest selling British debut of all time. Both albums were very good and something to be proud of at the time with the rise of Britpop. Then with the imminent release of albums “The Great escape” and from Oasis “What’s the story, morning glory”, they went head to head with single releases on the same day. Both relatively poor singles I might add, “Country house” and “Roll with it”. It made the national news. Blur got to number one. However Oasis had “Wonderwall” and “Don’t look back in anger” on this album, and achieved greater sales. As it was put, Oasis lost a battle with the first singles, but won the war. But in retrospect, Oasis followed this up with a cocaine fuelled, poor follow up, then a worse one after that. They did better than those two albums, but never achieved the heights of the first two. Whilst Blur changed their sound album to album, going from strength to strength. Which is not to say Oasis don’t have some brilliant tracks, e,g singles like “Live Forever”, or album tracks e.g. “Cast no shadow”. But in retrospect, who really won that war?

Blur have become, through talent and hard work, one of the UK’s most loved bands, particularly for people of my generation. It is interesting that many music fans in the US are starting to realise what they have missed. Lot’s of great songs, lots of great sounds, and lots of fun. At some point I went from being a fan, to being a fan who realised that Blur long since became a key band in British history, like e.g. The kinks, The Small Faces, The Smiths, Roxy music, or many more.

On an individual album basis, I recently had a similar realisation about David Bowie’s album “Low”, and how good that is. But I wanted to write about Blur.

Lexicon word of the day: Paseo.