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Today we bring you the final part of our exploration of David Bowie’s discography, taking you from 1997 to the present day. We’ve picked the crowning glory from each album – let us know if you agree.
You can read the other parts here: part one, part two, part three
I’m Afraid of Americans – Earthling – 1997
‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ is Bowie experimenting with industrial rock, producing a grungy track with a heavy baseline and a soaring chorus. The result? A track that punches you in the throat and knocks the wind from you.
This is Bowie discussing the so-called ‘invasion by any homogenised culture’ and the fact that it’s ‘depressing’. He recalled a time when he was travelling through Java and saw its first McDonalds – apparently he said ‘for fuck’s sake’ at its building.
For Bowie, this invasion strangles indigenous culture and narrows expression of life – take of that what you will.
‘Johnny combs his hair / And Johnny wants pussy in cars’ is one of Bowie’s best ever lines, right?
Thursday’s Child – ‘Hours…’ – 1999
‘Hours…’ is perhaps my least favourite Bowie album. No song stands out as truly classic and overall I feel it’s a hard listen.
‘Thursday’s Child’ is haunting, with layered backing vocalists lamenting the days of the week. The name is most likely taken from the ‘Monday’s Child’ nursery rhyme, which describes ‘Thursday’s Child’ as having far to go. This is perhaps an apt judgement of Bowie’s career as a whole. It took him a few albums before he managed to truly make an impact on the charts and within the music scene; and his career spanned over 50 years.
But, like I said, this song and the album as a whole are hard to fathom. It’s Bowie doing what he wants rather than what the fans want, and after already releasing over 20 albums he was allowed this experiment. But I’m glad he only had one truly – for lack of a better word – shoddy album of his career.
Slow Burn – Heathen – 2002
Released in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, Bowie’s Heathen album was scrutinised for its apparent influence by these terrorist attacks. Bowie denied that any songs were written after September 2001, but it’s undeniable how uncanny some of his lyrics are.
‘Slow Burn’ is one such song that focused on the degradation of mankind. ‘Here shall we live in this terrible town / Where the price for our minds shall squeeze them tight like a fist,’ Bowie sings in the opening.
This is Bowie singing about totalitarianism and how people are being attacked and possibly killed for speaking their mind. Its lyrics, like many from this album, are spookily relevant for the world in which it was released, where many people were afraid to speak their mind following the devastating events of 9/11.
New Killer Star – Reality – 2003
‘New Killer Star’ is not Bowie directly commenting on the world following the 9/11 attacks but this song, and Reality as a whole, were once again scrutinised for any and all references.
Bowie said of the song, ‘I’m not a political commentator, but I think there are times when I’m stretched to at least implicate what’s happening politically in the songs that I’m writing. And there was some nod, in a very abstract way, toward the wrongs that are being made at the moment with the Middle Eastern situation. I think that song is a pretty good manifesto for the whole record.’
Looking at the lyrics, sung over soft guitar and drums, one cannot miss the references to America following the war in Iraq. ‘See the great white scar / Over battery park,’ Bowie opens, before indirectly saying that the Bible results in bubbles and action (i.e., extremists taking action as a result of what they perceive their Bible tells them).
Reality is perhaps Bowie at his most real. Here he isn’t discussing Major Tom or made-up personas, no. Here he is discussing the world as he knows it, and it is this that is most striking. Despite being around for 50 years, fans know little about Bowie. But here he is, telling fans exactly what he thinks.
Where Are We Now? – The Next Day – 2013
‘Where Are We Now?’ is Bowie’s beautiful comeback single. Released without warning or promotion, this song was a birthday present to Bowie, released on his 66th birthday.
The melody is piercing, and the lyrics are haunting and repetitive, as Bowie, an older man, reminisces about his life. ‘Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz / You never knew that / That I could do that / Just walking the dead,’ Bowie sings with a familiar tone fans hadn’t heard in 10 years.
‘Where Are We Now?’ is beautiful in its simplicity, and is perhaps a comment upon his marriage to Iman. ‘As long as there’s me / as long as there’s you,’ Bowie closes the track. This song, and the album as a whole, are Bowie’s best work since the 80s.
Honourable mentions: ‘Like A Rocket Man’ and ‘God Bless The Girl’ off The Next Day Extra re-release. If you haven’t heard this bonus disk, you seriously need to hunt it out.
I Can’t Give Everything Away – Blackstar ★ – 2016
Blackstar (★) incorporates many poignant lyrics about a man grappling with his impending death. The title track (whose video is believed to kill off the infamous Major Tom) sees Bowie singing about spirits and execution. ‘Sue (or In A Season of Crime)’ sees Bowie singing about a clinic calling and saying his x-ray is fine.
‘Dollar Days’ has Bowie questioning whether he’ll see the English evergreens that he’s running to (which is wildly believed to be a reference to a pastoral afterlife). ‘Lazarus’ is bold and poignant: ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.’
Bowie’s battle with cancer shaped this final album.
‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ sees Bowie simply declare that he is ill. ‘I know something’s very wrong,’ he states as the song opens, before later discussing his illness in more blunt terms: ‘Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent.’
Here is Bowie failing as the disease takes control. What is beautiful about this closing song is its boldness. Whilst Bowie hoped to write and record more tracks, he perhaps knew deep down that would not be the case.
This is his final message to the world, and he’s saying that he’s going to the grave and that he can’t give them everything he wants to.
As a parting gift, Blackstar is exceptional. It is perhaps Bowie’s crowning glory, but I’ll leave it for you to decide.
Full list: 26 albums, 26 songs
1967 – The Laughing Gnome – David Bowie
1969 – Space Oddity – David Bowie / Space Oddity
1971 – All The Mad Men – The Man Who Sold The World
1971 – Oh! You Pretty Things – Hunky Dory
1972 – Starman – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
1973 – Time – Aladdin Sane
1973 – Sorrow – Pin Ups
1974 – Rebel Rebel – Diamond Dogs
1975 – Fame – Young Americans
1976 – Gold Years – Station to Station
1977 – Sound and Vision – Low
1977 – “Heroes” – “Heroes”
1979 – Boys Keep Swinging – Lodger
1980 – Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) – Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
1983 – Let’s Dance – Let’s Dance
1984 – Loving the Alien – Tonight
1987 – Glass Spider – Never Let Me Down
1993 – You’ve Been Around – Black Tie White Noise
1995 – Hallo Spaceboy – 1.Outside
1997 – I’m Afraid of Americans – Earthling
1999 – Thursday’s Child – ‘Hours…’
2002 – Slow Burn – Heathen
2003 – New Killer Star – Reality
2013 – Where Are We Now? – The Next Day
2016 – I Can’t Give Everything Away – Blackstar ★