Ashes to Ashes :: Dwelling in the uncanny valley of David Bowie

Words: Anthony Hansen

Never Let Me Down

“It was a large room. Full of people. All kinds.
And they had all arrived at the same building
at more or less the same time.
And they were all free. And they were all
asking themselves the same question:
What is behind that curtain?”
– Laurie Anderson

Itʼs been years since Iʼve written really earnestly about music. My recent writing, for the most part, has taken the form of diary entries, scrawled confessionals that help me try to make sense of my busy brain. There was a time when David Bowieʼs music served a similar purpose. In the past, he gave me something to hold on to: his fragmented, sometimes aggressively non-linear lyrical style sang my alienation back to me. There was also something weirdly relatable about an artist who saw music as a form of play-acting, expressing himself through bits of other peopleʼs discarded personas. As someone who could only understand the world when it was explained to me through books, movies, music and television, seeing someone who exuded that same detachment was weirdly comforting. Hell, the more outlandish he got, the more I liked him. Itʼs like someone somewhere had given him the permission to look, sound and act as weird as I felt. Never mind that Bowie and I would have virtually nothing in common if we met. He was famous, he was a grown-up, and he knew what he was talking about. Everything was going to be okay.

Still, as Iʼve been awkwardly stumbling into adulthood, even the music thatʼs given me my most solid foundation has come into question. The past year or two has seen me parting ways with a lot of my formative musical influences – sometimes cordially, sometimes not. I respectfully said goodbye to Frank Zappaʼs monotonous misanthropy while still retaining a friendly relationship with his more charming “throwaway” albums (hereʼs looking at you, Chungaʼs Revenge and Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch). I was saved from an abusive relationship with Lou Reedʼs solo career by an extended stay in John Caleʼs Heartbreak Hotel. I realized a lot of punk bands just plain sucked. David Sylvian really is kind of a jerk. And so on.

But through it all, Bowie remained untouchable. Yeah, his last few albums bored me a bit if I were to be totally honest, but heʼd still left behind an impressive body of work. I defended a good chunk of his ’90s output, listened indulgently to his ’80s misfires when no one was looking, danced around my room to Ziggy Stardust, and marveled at his output from 1976 to 1980, easily my favorite string of albums by any single artist.

Point is, I havenʼt enjoyed his music so much as lived in it. So it frustrates me to say that walking into The Next Day, his first album of new material in ten years, feels less like coming home than camping out in a museum decked out to look like a bedroom. So much effort has been put into making this place look comfortable and familiar that all I can notice is how creepily unnatural it is. The Next Day dwells in the uncanny valley of being so much like what one would expect a Bowie album to sound like that all I notice is the nagging sense that somethingʼs missing. All I hear are catchy choruses, calculated craftsmanship, politely perverse rock and roll. The acceptable face of subversion.

And yet, something keeps pulling me back into The Next Dayʼs undertow. If I were to guess, Iʼd say itʼs because, for the first time since before I was even born, Bowieʼs become mysterious again. The all-too-human missteps that defined his fall from grace in the ’80s and subsequent journey to artistic rehabilitation are now just a small part of the broader Bowie mythos, meaning that as long he keeps this no-contact-with-the-press routine going he can go back to being a total enigma. Itʼs a marked contrast with the “David Bowie, somewhat normal guy” persona heʼd adopted with his last few albums. At no point on this album does he give you anything to empathize with. Thereʼs no way in. Itʼs just a catalogue of obsessions. This is an album calculated to be intriguing, and you know what? On that level, it works. The only other Bowie album that has simultaneously fascinated and frustrated me this much is Tin Machine.

Iʼd like to think that – from the flippant cover on down – The Next Day is a reckoning, an exorcism, a final, definitive break with and deconstruction of the very concept of being “David Bowie”. If this proves to be true, the albumʼs last two tracks may be clues pointing the way forward. “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is a puddle of spiteful invective disguised as a feel-good singalong, a nasty piece of character assassination that ends with the drumbeat that opened Ziggy Stardustʼs opening salvo, “Five Years”. I love how it plays out like a sick joke at the expense of everything he once stood for or, perhaps, the idea that he ever stood for anything at all.

Cue the Scott Walker-aping closer, “Heat”, with its refrains of “And I tell myself I donʼt know who I am” and “I am a seer and I am a liar”. Thereʼs a weirdly self-destructive tone to all of it, like David Bowie (the person) has gotten sick of being “David Bowie” (the icon). In fact, itʼs almost like those years of “David Bowie is dead” rumors roused the man into action. Oh no you donʼt, world. David Bowie isnʼt dead until David Bowie fucking says so. On this album, he doesnʼt just die, heʼs brutally murdered, his body “left to rot in a hollow tree” (to quote the driving title track, the albumʼs other major highlight). Itʼs not quite John Lennon singing “the dream is over”, but I guess itʼll have to do.

More than any other Bowie album, it reminds me of Never Let Me Down (Bowieʼs least favorite and probably yours too), an album of very dark, unsettling songs all but ruined by their overstuffed, Sports-Mascot-chipper arrangements. The difference for me is: 1) I heard Never Let Me Down when I was in grade school and 2) I had taken the time to read and be thoroughly creeped out by the lyrics before I even heard a single note of it. The fact that the album itself wasnʼt any good was irrelevant – at that time in my life and under those circumstances, it didnʼt have to be. I can still listen to that album today and hear it not for what it is but what I always wanted it to be. A tiny, embarrassing part of Bowieʼs history that I co-opted for my own purposes, it now exists in my psyche as a weird little lie I still tell myself to feel better about the way my handle on the world and on myself has changed.

This isnʼt a phenomenon exclusive to David Bowie, of course. There are plenty of objectively shitty albums Iʼve embraced because they happened to be just what I needed at the time. Granting yourself the right to occasionally have incredibly shitty taste in music is a small but weirdly satisfying victory, like looking at yourself naked in the mirror and successfully stifling the urge to flinch. But I digress. Sometimes life presents us with things that we recognize to be completely true, but more often than not weʼre just making shit up as we go along. Just as many have chosen to believe that this is the Bowie album theyʼve all been waiting for, I have to believe that the cold, empty feeling it leaves me with is deliberate, not only because thatʼs consistent with how I think of Bowieʼs role as an artist, but also because itʼs the only way I can finally make sense of this thing and move on with my life.

So here it is, The Next Day, Bowieʼs own “Glass Onion”, a monument to our misguided nostalgia, a comeback that exists only to shut us up once and for all. You either see it as the album you want, the album you need, or the album you deserve. Everybody wins.

Somewhere in the museum wing on my way out, I see a small note at my feet in what looks suspiciously like the artistʼs handwriting. Thinking it may provide some context for all Iʼve seen, I pick it up and, sure enough, there it is: “You Canʼt Go Home Again”.

“Or in other words, shy from the sky. No answer lies there. It cannot care, especially for what it no longer knows. Treat that place as a thing unto itself, independent of all else, and confront it on those terms. You alone must find the way. No one else can help you. Every way is different. And if you do lose yourself at least take solace in the absolute certainty that you will perish.”
– Mark Z. Danielewski