The last song on “★” had just been released as the third, and first posthumous, single from the album last week. On my first listen, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” echoed the winsome, Toots Thielemans harmonica sound of “Never Let Me Down” until I realized that maybe even that had an earlier precedent in the genial “A New Career In A New Town” from side 1 of “Low.” Now, that’s all I can hear listening to this song. Why it wasn’t always that way I can’t say, seeing as “Low” is a top three Bowie album for me and I would rate “Never Let me Down” among his dead last material.
But the closer to side one of “Low” was a more optimistic song. “I can’t Give Everything Away,” in spite of its loveliness, began with the lyric “I know something’s very wrong.” A hardly reassuring statement in the best of times. The resulting song sounded bittersweet at best, even in the two days before we knew Bowie was to be no longer with us. Afterward, it cannot shake the feel of an elegy. For his part, Bowie comes across with an understandable sense of urgency as he attempts to succinctly summarize his modus operandi. As with “Lazarus,” there is a straightforward quality to the song that avoided ambiguity.
Bowie was stating his case here and after two verses and a repeated chorus of the upmost simplicity, lets the expressive sax of Danny McCaslin speak with full eloquence as his stand-in. McCaslin unleashed a flowing, euphonious solo of almost a minute and a half with rhythmically complex runs climaxing in a a glorious peak that really sticks with one afterward. Just a handful of listens had me anticipating the flurry of notes that effortlessly coalesced into a final message from Bowie that packed desperation and grace into the last minutes of the last Bowie song. Then the second verse returned for another airing before guitarist Ben Monder got to lay down the only guitar solo I can remember hearing on this album. Monder’s tone was muted and less euphoric than McCaslin’s sax and though his guitar echoed the sweep of the sax, the solo lasted just under a minute; feeling more like a coda than the obvious peak that McCaslin brought to the song. After Bowie joined the song for a few more runs on the chorus [simply the title], the song froze up and faded like a polaroid, with its constituent parts eventually disappearing.
And then, that was all from David Bowie.
I can’t say why I made sure to buy “★” on the day of release, but I’ve never been as grateful for doing so. Normally I am patient to a fault at acquiring music that I want. This time felt different. I didn’t even worry that there would be a 2xCD edition out within a few months. As it stood, buying this on January 8th allowed me two days to precess this work as something other than the last David Bowie album; released as he almost immediately died. As I said, it was shot through with intimations of mortality from the first note, but death had always been nipping at Bowie’s heels as a consistent theme in his work. His recent albums had no shortage of songs with death references. That an almost 69 year old artist would have such concerns was hardly surprising. The difference here was that earlier excursions into Thanatos were intellectual exercises for this man; not redolent of his day to day experience.
What I love about this album was that it was both a personal album for Bowie where he really invested himself in the work, and yet it also broke new artistic ground for him, and balanced the whole package with a generous serving of the sort of craftsmanship that he could never abandon, no matter how lofty his artistic aims. Bowie loved to absorb radical new musical ideas and be the artist who was “second to market” with them. Often, this manifested in a fundamental trendiness that resulted occasionally in exciting new syntheses of disparate styles. His groundbreaking album “Low” was perhaps paramount among these projects. The most tragic? The johnny-come-lately stab at industrial [ca. 1995, no less!] immediately comes to mind.
The David Bowie of his last four albums had wisely left adaptation of the latest sounds in rock for his artistic toolkit by the wayside to concentrate on the art rather than the process. “Bring Me The Disco King” managed to thrill with a straightforward stab at jazz that didn’t try to fuse it with anything else. It had me expecting more that the single “Sue [Or In A Season of Crime]” belatedly followed up on, though I’ve shamefully still not heard the original version. Hearing that Bowie had jettisoned his [fine] steadfast rock players to enlist jazzbos made a lot of sense to my ears, and the album has more than bore this out. It’s really isn’t a jazz album, but rather, it’s an album informed by jazz; occasionally using jazz [masterfully] in service of his songs. There is plenty of exciting, complex playing to he heard here, but the craftsmanship is subordinated to the artistry of the songs. Nothing here was performed for its own sake [though that can be exhilarating, as well].
Tony Visconti has yammered on about more songs being in the can and perhaps a DLX RM of “★” might be in the cards for a few months down the road. I hope that saner heads prevail and let sleeping dogs lie. I’d hate to see this strong artistic statement of a man facing the end of his life be watered down for the sake of commerce. At this point, I see no need for it. Visconti says a lot of things that don’t necessarily manifest at any rate. On the other hand, Bowie was such a planner and schemer that I can easily imagine him defining a series of releases that would hit the marketplace for years after his demise. All the same, I hope that there are none. After all, we’ve had 52 years to absorb this man’s art. Isn’t that enough?
Strangely enough, for the last several years, prior to 2013, when I thought that he had quietly retired, I often would consider “what would be the most exciting and courageous thing that Bowie could do when he died?” The first thing that came to my mind was the fact that he owned almost all of his recording masters. His canon had been potent enough to float a bond issue in the 90s! Had I been in his shoes, I would have released all of the copyright and publishing to the public domain so that the body of work would dramatically continue to spread and mutate in the wake of my death. Anyone who wanted the music or wanted to use it as raw materials for something new would have that right.
That’s why I was so surprised when “I Can’t Give Everything Away” appeared as a song title! If I had his career, that would be how I’d want my legacy to continue. I would have given everything away! The family can’t be hurting for finances. Of course, the song parsed that title in the other reading that was possible. Instead, he was arguing for retaining some mystery and opacity even as he sought to communicate the reality of his situation via metaphor and artistic innuendo.
I will honestly miss the artist. I truly felt that we had another decade of music to come from him, but at least he went out on a high water mark. I feel that Bowie put himself primarily into three albums: “Stationtostation,” “Low” and “★.” There were many other good albums that reflected his interests and thoughts, but I think that they were colored by varying degrees with commercial concerns in addition to their artistic concerns. That there were also albums with almost no artistic concerns can’t be denied either. The David Bowie Continuum covered a fairly wide swath of ground.
To his credit, one telling detail about the man was that when he first grabbed the brass ring in 1972 after “Ziggy Stardust,” the first thing he did but extend the spotlight to Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Mott The Hoople. It spoke of a generosity of spirit that seemed admirable. He gave artistic and financial oxygen to writers and performers he admired [and yes, pilfered from] and gave them a leg to stand on in the marketplace for the first time in their careers. In return, his body of work was the bedrock from which countless artists I enjoyed took their own inspiration. It’s really true; without Ferry and Bowie, my Record Cell would be a lot smaller.
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