David Bowie was a thing now. With Ziggy Stardust he had created a new kind of theatrical, character-based music that would pave the way for Chris Gaines, Sasha Fierce and Hannah Montana. But by the mid-1970s, the Spiders from Mars had started to go away, and Bowie himself retired Ziggy and moved to the United States. The times, they were a-changing, but, of course, David Bowie wrote the song on changes.
Disclaimer: I’m really sick and I just woke up after sleeping for 20 hours so this might be the best post ever.
Diamond Dogs is weird. It’s supposed to be Bowie’s the first post-Ziggy album, the beginning of a new era, but you can tell from the look of his half-dog form on the cover that he hasn’t quite gotten away from that persona yet. In fact, the best song on this album, “Rebel Rebel” is the most Ziggy of all the tracks. Originally designed to be a sort of musical adaptation of 1984, Bowie was forced to shift to his own version of the apocalypse when he couldn’t get the rights from George Orwell’s estate. The resultant album is fun, but honestly, mostly forgettable. Except for “Rebel Rebel,” of course.
Favorite Tracks: “Diamond Dogs,” “Sweet Thing,” “Rebel Rebel”
One of the most note-worthy aspects of Diamond Dogs was Bowie’s entry into soul music, which he made his focus on Young Americans. Here are the reasons this album is awesome: to give himself soul credibility, David Bowie brought in Luther Vandross and Andy Newmark. He also worked on the song “Fame” with John Lennon, which is the reason that Bowie’s version of “Across the Universe” – which Lennon said he thought was the best – is on this album. This also gave us Bowie’s next character, the Thin White Duke, which would get more exposure on Station to Station. It’s more consistent than Diamond Dogs, but Young Americans is ultimately still not as great as many of the albums that came before it.
Favorite Tracks: “Young Americans,” “Win,” “Fame”
So let’s talk about the Thin White Duke. It’s a character, sure, but like all of Bowie’s characters, it’s a reflection of himself. And at this point in time, he was surviving on a diet of red peppers, milk, and cocaine. Yeah, the man was not well, and being thin and pale was more than a character choice. Having said that, Station to Station is kind of great. Bowie turns the work of his last two albums backwards, incorporating what he learned into his style, making an album more special than he had been in a while. The album cover is a still from The Man Who Fell to Earth, because that was going on around this time too. But mostly, drugs.
Favorite Tracks: “Station to Station,” “Golden Years,” “TVC 15”
Because cocaine’s a helluva drug, Bowie eventually realized he had to kick the habit. He moved to Berlin and began working on a triptych of albums, the so-called Berlin Trilogy. Taking influence from German bands like Kraftwerk, his failed soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth, and collaborating with Brian Eno, Low is a record way ahead of its time. It is also significantly instrumental, not something I would have ever expected from Bowie, the storyteller. Many of the lyrics on the first side of the record are sparse and difficult to understand, and on the other side he drops away completely. And yet it works. Somehow, Bowie knew how to do atmospheric stuff even before it was thing.
Favorite Tracks: “Sound and Vision,” “A New Career in Town,” “Warszawa”
“Heroes” follows in the footsteps of Low. It is another album split into a vocal half and an instrumental half. Brian Eno is still around, contributing, as he is wont to do. The sound is still deliberately minimalist, and even harder, and yet… “Heroes” seems warmer than Low ever did. Bowie feels less detached, adding more emotion to this album than the last, as you can here on the immortal title track. The Berlin Trilogy is Bowie at perhaps his most avant-garde, and if you really dig that kind of thing, I could easily see you thinking this album, or the one before it, is the best in his entire discography.
Favorite Tracks: “Beauty and the Beast,” “Heroes,” “Black Out”
By the time Bowie got Brian Eno back in the studio for a third album, I guess both of them had lost their spark. David Bowie is not a man who sticks to one sound for very long, after all. Lodger feels a little different from its sister albums, especially because it’s the first of the trilogy to not be half instrumental. I’ve read many credits critique it pretty heavily, basically calling it the afterbirth of Low and “Heroes,“ basically a stopgap between this era and the next. I don’t think Lodger should be overlooked, but I admit I have a harder time calling it great. Bowie’s work here sees him taking the experimental genius of his Berlin work and pushing it into a poppier package – because Bowie can never be that far from pop. The songs are much closer to radio-friendly lengths, with nothing longer than five minutes, and sound a bit more like rock songs than German zaniness. But clearly, Bowie was ready to move on yet again. His career was already over a decade old, he was an international star, and his career had been through like four discrete eras, but David Bowie (just like this Retrospecticus) was far from done.
Favorite Tracks: “Move On,” “Look Back in Anger,” “Boys Keep Swinging”