By Beppe Colli
Mar. 17, 2013
And so, David Bowie managed to give us a big surprise, just like in
the old days. Of course, it has to be said that this time the odds were
definitely in his favour, starting with a ten years' silence that was bound
to amplify whatever news about a new release were leaked (quite a few writers
have wondered aloud whether a new Bowie album coming just two or three
years after his previous, and decidedly unmemorable, one would have received
the same degree of attention). There's also the "secrecy clause" that
forced all those who worked on this project to keep mum, which of course
was a very important ingredient for a successful operation (not sure if
it's strictly true, this one, however: it has been said that Robert
Fripp's partial disclosure of a new Bowie album taking shape is the main
reason for Fripp's non-appearance on said album).
It goes without saying that "strategic
planning" is the name of the game here: first, the news; then, a nostalgic-themed
video; then, the album art; then, some more news directly from the mouth
of trusted producer Tony Visconti; then, a second, more active-looking,
video; then, the album tracks streaming on iTunes; then, having the vinyl
go on sale ten days after the digital edition(s); then, having the album
go on sale at different dates in various markets; and so on. Then, of course,
it was time for the big Sony muscle to work wonders: I've rarely seen newsstands
windows populated by multiple editions of the same person, magazines and
newspapers doing their best to help. For an artist who stopped moving huge
quantities about thirty years ago, and who has quite successfully managed
to survive first as a concert attraction, and then as a "celebrity",
this is no easy feat.
But Sony's big muscle is not the only ingredient
at work here, the whole being decidedly more complex than one's first impression.
Many times, on Forums and blogs, I read something along the lines of "I
really want this album to be good". Which in a way is the perfect
epitome of "fandom". But...
It has to be said that this time Bowie has
managed to resuscitate that unmistakable feeling of "discovery"
that's so typical of the Sixties - and, though a tiny bit less, of the Seventies
-, a feeling which has almost completely disappeared in our present age,
with the Web, YouTube, and those social networks such as Facebook and MySpace
(all stuff that, provided I'm not mistaken, did not really exist at the time
of Bowie's last released album before The Next Day).
It's not that managers, record companies,
and publicists were eager to have their artists hidden somewhere! It's
just that there were only a few outlets available. And while the publicity
machine worked full-time when it came to big names such as The Beatles,
Dylan, and The Stones (also the "Boy Bands" of the time - but
who took those seriously?), it was not unusual for one to listen to a new
single on the radio about which one knew nothing; or, in a record shop,
having one's hands on a new album whose release had not been announced
- and that had yet to be reviewed. It was precisely at this moment that
the debate was declared to be officially opened, ears straining to "get" the
lyrics, and all those secrets that only attentive listening sessions could
So, the paradox here is that, while in the
past buying an album was the real starting point, today the moment of purchase
is the last step of a very long process whose nature is strictly inflationary,
with those various source releasing more and more information with increasing
earliness. The unintended consequence is that buyers get to be more and
more satiated and fatigued before they get to spend their cash. Which,
of course, is not too big a problem when spending one's cash is the only
option that's available to the consumer.
But there's another side to this coin. Though
he's only a bit younger, Bowie was a main actor in a musical
"cleavage" - i.e., "Glam" - which took place quite a
long time after The Beatles, Dylan, and The Stones came to fame, and so he
was a main figure for the "tail" end of Boomers, but mostly for
their younger brothers and sisters. So it's only logical that the unpleasant
sense of mortality that Boomers know too well by now has now become a reality
for their younger counterparts, who have reacted strongly to Bowie's
"resurrection" after ten years, now that he has not only managed
to release a new album, but an album that can be listened to with the same
pleasure that's usually reserved for his undisputed masterpieces.
(Let's also ponder the fact that the death
of Kevin Ayers has provoked an echo - even an obituary in The New York
Times! - which is impossible to comprehend outside a cultural framework
that has him as a main figure of an important subculture, with no real
attention given to the number of units he sold during his lifetime.)
But there's more. Among those "serious
artists", Bowie is one of the last still standing who can act as a
"glue" for a vast quantity of people. This is a point that's very
often misunderstood, as it's easy to see on many Forum threads. While some
long for the time when "everybody was exposed to the same stuff" -
which implies there are "shared memories": the cultural objects
that were consumed at the same time - others invariably make fun of them,
"but how can one long for the time when one was had no choice but to
listen to the same radio station - which didn't even broadcast The Velvet
It's a solid objection - which totally misses
the point. As the process of fragmentation goes on, those objects that
once acted as "glue" become more and more important, since they
gave people an identity that came from the outside. Those "glue" object
were shared, and they were also (relatively speaking) "impermanent" -
in fact, we still remember them - in an age where individual atomization
was still low.
this stuff should work as a good explanation for the vast quantity of attention
Bowie's new album, The Next Day, has received, all those reviews (many
of them can be accessed through Metacritic), and all the activity of various
Forums and blogs.
Most reviews were quite superficial, as it's
the norm these days. Plus, late news and the need to produce copy all of
a sudden, are not the best ingredients when one wants to make good work.
Not a single review I've read mentions the
quality of the sound of the album. All my sources on the Web tell of a "dynamic
range" equal to 6 (usually expressed as DR6), which looks quite low
even by today's standards (I have to say that I regard values such as DR9
- DR11 on recent albums by Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, and The Ben Folds
Five, to be far from scandalous, but not perfect, either), and whose compression
seems to be destined to produce quite fatiguing listening sessions. Funny
thing, the DR6 value appears to be common to both the CD and the digital
files on sale at iTunes and HDTracks; hence, the compression applied at
the mastering stage is supposed to be also on the vinyl album (still not
on sale at the time of this writing).
"strange subtleties" apart, most Bowie reviews I've read did not
pay too much attention to the album's music proper, those
"biographic/human" aspects coming to the fore, the discussion about
lyrics taking center stage.
A good example is the writing (which I'd
call "a review", except for the fact that I learned otherwise)
penned by Simon Reynolds which appeared on US newspaper The New York Times,
on March 6, 2013, under the title The Singer Who Fell To Earth. An article
I had not seen, but of whose existence I was made aware thanks to a discussion
that appeared on Rockcritics, the precious source of a lot of information
that after a long pause editor Scott Woods decided to re-start.
With a clear, transparent Bowie touch, Woods
gave the title Sound vs. Vision? to the discussion which, on March 11,
2013, had its starting point in a comment by Steven Ward, who expressed
his disappointment about the fact that in the above-mentioned piece Simon
Reynolds made almost no mention of music. As a 180 opposite, Woods mentioned
a review by Phil Freeman, which appeared on Burning Ambulance.
I was greatly surprised to see Simon Reynolds
himself posting, writing that his piece was not intended to be a review,
but "a piece", whose identity and function were vastly different
Reynolds then went on, giving readers the
proper conceptual framework to his thought. Here I'll quote him verbatim,
and at length: "On the subject of describing in detail what musically
occurs in a track, well, there is an argument that this is less relevant
than ever now that everyone can hear for themselves. The album was streaming
on iTunes before the piece was handed in. And other newspapers rushed out
their track by track insta-reviews within hours of its being available
to them the previous week. If you want to find out what the record sounds
like, before you buy, it's not hard."
Reynolds's reasoning looked quite inadequate
to me. So it was with great pleasure that I replied: "I think there's
a vast difference between a review and 'describing in detail what musically
occurs in a track'. Countless people I know consider music criticism a
thing of the past precisely because nowadays anybody can listen for him/herself,
and make up his/her own mind. But music criticism doesn't stop at description,
of course: it also traces musical connections, – something which
the average reader is usually not equipped to do."
I was having a look at a "Bowie" folder I have in my computer
I happened to find a few old articles by Paul Du Noyer that I had almost
forgotten about. (Du Noyer, of course, was the first editor of Mojo magazine,
also the first editor of UK monthly The Word.) Du Noyer has a personal
website, where he keeps stuff he wrote, interviews, etc. Also some extracts
of raw transcriptions of interviews he did. Here's a brief excerpt I particularly
like - he's talking to David Bowie:
They have asked me to do two halves, the
new music and the Trilogy-Ashes to Ashes period. How does that sound to
We've covered that period so many times.
Now those old albums.
Go on then.
Has it been covered too much?
Well! If anyone needs some space filled they
say "Let's do the Berlin stuff."
© Beppe Colli 2013
| Mar. 17, 2013