Personalities | David Bowie | Still Relevant in the Noughties

Many were those in 1972 who would have snorted at the idea that an artist so obsessed with superficiality and chart success would sustain a multi-decade career characterized by career-jeopardising innovation.

Hours… (1999) saw Bowie co-writing with Tin Machine guitarist and subsequent frequent collaborator Reeves Gabrels. The album had originated in a commission to score a computer game called Omikron: The Nomad Soul. One of the cuts, ‘What’s Really Happening’, featured the credit of one Alex Grant, winner of an internet competition to write a lyric to a Bowie melody. Leaving that gimmick aside, the album was less self-consciously experimental than the previous two.

The music was generally warm, even if the lyrics were bad-tempered. The preponderance of mid-tempo and lengthy tracks gave the impression of songs serving the words but that’s okay, even if the soothing ‘Thursday’s Child’ and the snarling hard rock of ‘The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell’ are the only tracks that suggest a rock giant taking a time-out.

The Lost Album

Heathen (2002) was the first album on Bowie’s own ISO label, whose formation, rumour has it, was his response to previous label Virgin failing to release an album titled Toy. Both Bowie and Visconti had worked on it, mixing new songs with rearrangements of some of his oldies. Some of Toy’s tracks appeared as Bowie B-sides before the whole thing eventually found its way on to the internet. When it did, the consensus was that it was not a Beach BoysSmile-type lost classic.

The Return Of Visconti

Heathen saw Bowie formally reunited with Tony Visconti for the first time since Scary Monsters (1980) nearly a quarter of a century before. Mixed discretely in with the conventional songcraft were modern techniques and styles. The title of its track ‘Slow Burn’ could be said to sum up the charms of an album of leisurely songs flecked with discrete decoration, although the poppy ‘Everyone Says “Hi”’ showed that his knack of creating an immediately hummable tune remained intact.

Reality (2003) was also pretty good. By now, Bowie’s audience was so knowledgeable as to be able to respond to sonic shorthand; the album’s haunting seven-minute closer ‘Bring Me The Disco King’ felt agreeably like a sequel to the title track of Aladdin Sane (1973) – right down to Mike Garson revisiting his fractured piano style from that recording.

Although sales of Bowie’s albums had fluctuated in recent years and free-fallen in America, the fact that A Reality grossed more than any other tour that year showed where the big bucks were: for beloved artists with a substantial back catalogue.

Retreating From View

When Bowie hit 50 in 1997, he had been publicly cheerful, telling one interviewer, ‘It’s incredible. I’m bouncy.’ This must have come back to haunt him in mid-2004, when this preternaturally youthful-looking man suffered a heart attack. It caused the cancellation of the final dates of his A Reality Tour, which had already seen misfortune when...

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