With David Bowie’s new album that followed the surprise release of his single Where Are We Now? it becomes clear: artists who wish to remain relevant need to find new ways to reinvent themselves; art can not stand still. It must change with the times, but not for the times. Thousands of words where written towards the new album’s release date back in March 2013. Some with titles proclaiming the return of the ‘thin white duke’, others along the lines of something about the ‘man who fell back to earth’. Writers and fans alike called for a new Low, or Ziggy Stardust. No doubt, upon its arrival, some saw it as a missed opportunity to recapture ‘this’ or emulate ‘that’, but Bowie has never been an artist who steps backwards. What should be expected with this new material is that it represents what the artist is saying today. In the last year, both Bob Dylan and Scott Walker have released critically acclaimed albums. Dylan has done this ever since 1997’s Time Out Of Mind. Walker, albeit more sporadically and certainly not within the mainstream, has also been doing this since 1984’s Climate Of Hunter, which came amazingly just a year after Bowie’s biggest seller Let’s Dance. In fact, it’s with the recent publicity surrounding Scott Walker’s latest release Bish Bosch that we may get some indication of what’s to come for Bowie, although on a much larger scale.
Scott Walker, the 60s pin-up, went on to make a series of solo albums after his initial success with the group, The Walker Brothers. Being rich with brooding orchestra – although not the standard fair of 60s pop – his music was experimental. Aching lyrics coupled with a baritone voice made Walker the envy of everyone, from Bowie himself to Alex Turner, certainly with respect to the latter if his homage to the Walker era, The Last Shadow Puppets, is anything to go by. Walker’s albums were cinematic; they were pop music for people who read Camus or Sarte. He was not asking anyone to come fly with him; he sang Jacques Brel songs about whorehouses, or political songs about Stalinist Russia.
As the ’60s became the ’70s, moods changed. After poor sales of his fourth solo album, Scott 4, and the poor reaction to Til’ The Band Comes In, Walker disappeared. After several years, he briefly remerged for a Walker Brothers’ reunion that spawned three albums. This included Nite Flights, with the title track being covered by Bowie on Black Tie White Noise. After that, another period of obscurity followed Walker until Climate of Hunter. It was this album that bore a rebirth for the artist and marked the death of the 60s crooner. Albums Tilt, The Drift, and the recent Bish Bosch followed over the next 28 years, and with each release came the same question: what happened to the 60s Scott Walker?
It’s almost as if we expect to preserve our youth through art, but a space of months can see a rapid change in many artists. One only has to look at some of Bowie’s peers or contemporaries of the past to demonstrate this. Compare the Beatles of Sgt. Pepper’s to those of The White Album. Or the Radiohead of The Bends to the one we hear in Amnesiac. Great artists strive to never repeat themselves. They continue to create great work via different routes and methods. How can artists return to who they were 20 or 30 years previously? The answer is simple: they can not. This is not to say the work that follows is inferior. It just simply cannot replicate what has come before, and why should it?
Going back once more to Bob Dylan, we can see as early as the 60s that he was experimenting with reinvention. Although some may argue not as successfully or excessively as Bowie would in the 70s, by the end of the decade Dylan had already gone through three obvious changes: vocally, lyrically, and musically. Take The Times They Are A-Changin, Highway 61 Revisited and John Wesley Harding for example. These albums from the beginning, middle and end of the decade highlight the clear differences. The same can be said with Bowie in the 70s. If you were to listen to The Man Who Sold The World, Young Americans, and Lodger back to back, the distinctions would be astounding. Each album offers the listener something unique, something of the highest quality. Each album is just as important as the last for it’s own reasons.
Looking more thoroughly at Bowie’s somewhat ignored The Man Who Sold The World, this album did not chart successfully until after the release of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Yet its influence can be seen on the proceeding work up until Young Americans. This can be put down to Mick Ronson, Bowie’s guitarist on those albums. However it can also be heard in the lyrics of Hunky Dory, where ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ continues the Nietzschian themes of ‘The Supermen’ and ‘The Width Of A Circle’ from The Man Who Sold The World. You can hear the remains of ‘After All’ on Diamond Dogs‘ ‘Future Legend’, and Aladdin Sane’s ‘Cracked Actor’ would settle nicely beside anything on The Man Who Sold The World. Clearly each album is important. Each album leads the artist to the next phase of creativity, and when looking at the work as a whole, nothing can be discarded.
This can also be said of Dylan, who by the eighties had become marooned in his own myth. Reinvention it seemed was beyond him. The quality of his work dipped dramatically and with no way forward he became bored. As the end of the decade approached, coincidence played its card. Another motorbike accident disrupted his plans and before long Dylan found himself making Oh Mercy. This was not to be the return to form many had hoped for. However, after a decade of work that failed to impress even the man himself, songs like Everything Is Broken offered fans a glimmer of hope that he still had something to say. It would not be until 1997’s Time Out Of Mind though, that a new Bob Dylan could be fully embraced. This new ‘Dylan’ was not finger-pointing at the masters of war, but instead was a lovesick traveller, concerned with getting into heaven and an impending sense of his own mortality. This was a ‘Dylan’ complete with cowboy get up, blues shuffle, and a voice so world-weary it rivalled even Tom Waits. Over the next four albums, Love and Theft, Modern Times, Together Through Life, and last year’s Tempest, Dylan honed and expanded upon this character, further inventing this new role. With Together Through Life, Dylan even achieved a Number One selling album, after more than a couple of decades.
Where Dylan has been successful with these albums is that, they do not get compared to the albums of the 60s. These albums – particularly Time Out Of Mind – rest comfortably beside his greatest work. If there is a yearning for the past, it is more for the sound of past vocals. With each new album comes the acceptance that the man has moved on, and that each work is a portrait of the artist now. This is exactly how we should treat the new Bowie material. We should ignore the yearning for Station to Station, or Let’s Dance, and enjoy them for what they are. We need to appreciate the pioneering spirit of when they were and try to embrace whatever comes now, today.