David Bowie, in the 1990s, played the most important character of his career: himself.
Many critics and fans consider Bowie’s 1990s output mediocre. His 1993 album Black Tie White Noise is the point, they say, where the slide began. However, when you examine Bowie’s entire career, the 1990s are not a slide but a rebirth.
Even if you think that Bowie’s hits began with 1969’s “Space Oddity” and followed with 1971’s “Changes,” I think most folks will agree that David Bowie really hit it big when he became Ziggy Stardust. For the rest of the 70s, phases of his career were noted by which character appeared on stage. You had Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, the Thin White Duke, or that weird clown he played in the “Ashes to Ashes” video. Even in 1983 when he went mainstream with “Let’s Dance” he was more the Thin White Duke’s brother than Bowie himself (although, when you look at the number of songs he played on the Serious Moonlight tour, he was closer to his true self than ever before). Even in 1987 and his overtly and, in retrospect, too bombastic Glass Spider tour, you could make the case that it was the characters that mattered more than the music. Heck, if you hear “Suffragette City” or “Let’s Dance” or “Scary Monsters,” you think more of how Bowie looked than how good the songs are. Bowie has said that he staged the Glass Spider tour—with a giant, translucent spider hovering over the stage—because that’s what people had come to expect of him. The music didn’t matter. Only the image mattered.
But, for Bowie, it was the music that matters most and his 1990s catalog proves it. Many fans at the time wondered about the ill-fated experiment that was Tin Machine. Why was Bowie trying to be just a member of a band? Doesn’t he know that’s impossible? Yeah, it probably was impossible but he was doing something he needed to do: get back to his roots. Get back to why he wanted to be a musician in the first place. In the mid-1960s, Bowie, then going by his given name of David Jones, was a member of a series of bands. After he had changed his last name to Bowie—so as not to be confused with the Monkees’ Davie Jones—Bowie became a solo artist and meshed all of the smorgasbord that was 1960s London into his own unique sound.
Bowie’s Tin Machine experience placed a bookend to the first phase of his career. After putting his extensive back catalog to rest in the 1990 Sound + Vision tour, Bowie returned to what got him first interested in music: jazz and playing saxophone. Black Tie White Noise (1993) is the result. With this record, Bowie pays homage to his musical heritage that influenced him in the 1950s and early 1960s, while still sounding modern. Nile Rodgers produced the album, their second collaboration after the multi-platinum Let’s Dance album. Lester Bowie, the avant-garde trumpet player, is featured heavily and Mick Ronson and Mike Garson, members of Ziggy’s band, the Spiders from Mars, also beam into the studio. The semi-autobiographical “Jump (They Say)” is the most popular from this CD. The rest of the music, including some instrumentals, a first since the 1970s, gyrated between pop, dance, jazz, and fantastic, yet underrated ballads. Sinatra would have been proud. Oh, and while Bowie is known for his often dour outlook on life as reflected through his songs, his then-recent marriage to model Iman made Black Tie White Noise altogether ebullient.
Later the same year, he recorded and released music for the BBC program "The Buddha of Suburbia," a collection of experimental music for which Bowie is quite proud. The music--almost all performed by Bowie and Erdal Kizilcay--was fresh. You could hear Bowie's pure enjoyment in the anonmyity of the instrumental music.
Having been musically born again, Bowie reviewed his career before he tackled his next album. For all the hit records and personas, fans and critics generally agreed that his trilogy of albums with Brian Eno—Low, “Heroes,” Lodger, (1977-79), sometimes referred to as the Berlin albums named for the city in which they were recorded—marked a creative moment in time for which Bowie could be proud. With that in mind, and giving a nod to his earlier theatrics, Bowie and Eno collaborated on 1995’s Outside. A concept album, somewhat bloated by its strict adherence to the overall story, Outside marked yet another example of what Bowie has done throughout his career: take stock of current musical trends and take a step ahead. The grunge movement was in full sway but there was also an undercurrent of industrial-rock that was bubbling up to the surface.
Characterized by a furious guitar-driven wall of sound as well as the moody, ambient synthesizer of Eno, Outside is Bowie return to the familiar, desolate sound of isolation in the midst of the modern. The tour that followed, co-headlined with Nine Inch Nails, exposed Bowie to a new, younger audience who must have wondered why Bowie, the original author of “The Man Who Sold the World” but made famous by Nirvana’s Unplugged set, was covering a Nirvana song. For the older fans, Bowie’s 1995 tour was a pleasure with new, industrial readings of old songs (Scary Monsters, Look Back In Anger, or DJ) and the dusting off of rarely-heard songs (Andy Warhol, My Death, or Teenage Wildlife). Popular songs from this album were “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” (good song but somewhat out of context when heard on the radio), “Hallo Spaceboy” (pile-driving rocker with blistering guitar work), and the subtle and wonderfully melodic “Strangers When We Meet.”
After Bowie’s experiment with industrial music, he noticed that the clubs in London played what was described as jungle/drum-and-bass music. You could certainly make the case that jungle/drum-and-bass was to London what hip-hop was the America, namely, an urban musical form with its own vocabulary and styles. In the mid-90s, this style was still more a jumble of musical types superimposed on each other, the result somewhat mish-mashed. Leave it to Bowie, with his perfectly maturing voice, to inject a degree of melody on rapid-rhythm drum-and-bass on his album Earthling (1997). He created something altogether unique in his career as well as the 1997 musical scene. Highlights of this CD are “Dead Man Walking” and “I’m Afraid of Americans.” In certain concert settings, Bowie unplugged these songs, stripping away the techno music to reveal the beauty of his music and voice underneath.
When examining Bowie’s entire career, you can see trilogies emerge. The aforementioned Berlin trilogy is one, the trilogy of albums surrounding Ziggy Stardust—The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Pin-Ups—is another and the 1980s albums—Let’s Dance, Tonight, Never Let Me Down—is a third. The early-to-mid 1990s albums just discussed is another trilogy and, yet, Bowie gave us a fifth. Beginning with 1999’s …hours, Bowie began to reexamine his own career in a quite overt way. Upon listening to the sedate musings of the then 52-year-old man, …hours sounds very much like the answer to the question: What would Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory sound like if it were recorded in 1999? With its acoustic stylings and meditative reflections, …hours was the answer. And it was a distinct break from the previous three albums. “Thursday’s Child” was the lead single, followed soon after by “Seven” and “Survive.” Back in 1999, you had to wonder if this were one of the few stand-alone albums Bowie had released throughout the years—The Man Who Sold the World, Young Americans, Scary Monsters—or the beginning of another cycle.
In 2002, Bowie released his most critically acclaimed album in years, Heathen. Produced by Tony Visconti, the soundboard genius behind most of Bowie’s albums in the 1970s, Heathen all but returned to the sound of the Berlin trilogy. Dark, moody, introspective punctuated with loud bursts like Bowie’s cover of the Pixie’s “Cactus,” Heathen arrived on store shelves in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and seemed to pose new questions. In interviews during 2002, when Bowie was asked if the attacks had inspired any of the songs on the record, Bowie usually responded by stating that this particular pessimistic outlook on life had been a staple of his entire career. So, nothing fundamentally different but again, it was a prescient Bowie being one step ahead of the rest of us.
Then, in 2003, came his latest album, Reality. And it is here that Bowie embraces something altogether positive: the spirit and essence of New York City. Just listening to the tracks you can all but smell the odors wafting along the Avenue of the Americas or hear the sounds of the city. There are obvious post-9/11 depressive lyrics—“See the great white scar/Over Battery Park/Then a flare glides over/But I won't look at that scar”—as well as more surprisingly optimistic lyrics, perhaps as the result of his fourteen-year marriage to Iman or the joy that the couple’s three-year-old daughter bring to their life.
But there’s also something else. There’s a sly wink and a smile by Bowie to all of us. He tells us that he’s never gonna get old. During the Reality Tour, he delved into every phase of his catalogue, bringing out album cuts that hadn’t been performed live in decades. The DVD that documented that tour contains thirty songs (just drool at the set list and look at the stats of the tour), a three-hour experience that showed a performer, musician, and icon still performing at a peak many other artists would envy.
Smoking and touring finally caught up with Bowie in 2004, enough so that he had to cut the tour short. In the years since—going on five—it is the longest drought of Bowie’s career without a new record. He has recorded one-off songs here and there but performed rarely. You would be foolish to think there won’t be another Bowie album out there. But Ziggy is 61 this year and, as much as I hate to admit it, it is possible that we have all we’re going to get.
Either way, do not dismiss the 1990s albums. Collectively and separately, they constitute some of the best music of Bowie’s career. And if we do get that one, last album, you can bet David Bowie, The Thin White Duke, will probably be one step ahead of everyone and beckoning us to follow.
P.S., On the commemoration of the album's 20th anniversary, in 2019, I reviewed ...hours.