“From nowhere to nothing”, deadpans David Bowie in a pickled-in-experience voice, on his comeback from a decade-long artistic slumber. ‘The Next Day’ has Bowie portray a soulless universe in thrall to celebrityhood, an occasionally “primitive world” where people “walk the dead” and men lead “blind lives”.
The kick-in-the-guts of the title track (“Here I am / Not quite dying”) encapsulates the life of 21st-century everyman, and the nebulous moralities, the bedlams and the schizophrenias that suck the spirit out of us all (“They can’t get enough of that doomsday song / They can’t get enough of it all”). In an echo of Robert Johnson, the enigmatic bluesman alleged to have sold his soul to the devil, Bowie bemoans, “They can work with Satan while they dress like the saints / They know God exists for the Devil told them so”.
If Bowie’s a “man lost in time” (as he croons on Where Are We Now, an elegiac reflection on his Berlin years), his grasp on the here-and-now is far from incoherent. His is a worldview as far removed from Bob Dylan’s as the 1960s is from the 2010s.
In 2013, 46 years after he released his first album (and 10 years on from his last), Bowie is unafraid of opening up a dialogue with reality. Dylan, meanwhile, gives the impression that his mind is elsewhere, visualizing instead a musical Arcadia. No bad thing, of course. The old curmudgeon anyway has lightened up, and listening to any of his three releases from the last decade – ‘Love And Theft’, ‘Modern Times’ and ‘Together Through Life’ – one finds a levity that very rarely manifested itself over the course of his career.
Dylan’s 2012 disc, ‘Tempest’, came 50 years after his first, and continued the nostalgia trip of the preceding three – as if he’d rather take shelter in the comforts of an old America and her homespun shibboleths, than make an acquaintance with Millennial bleakness. The reclusive minstrel who used Biblical imagery to fashion seminal folk tunes all those years ago, has become roots-music’s cranky grandfather. Bowie’s latest, on the other hand, has all the conviction, grit, gravitas and the unvarnished narrative of a man who cares about life – the gutter and the stars – no matter how disillusioned he may feel about it.
It’s as if Dylan, never the most outwardly political of songsters post his folk years, has fought too many battles, and he’s damned if he’ll fight any more in the autumn of his life. Bowie, though, has never shied away from confronting the naked truths of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Clearly, the Englishman still has his ear to the ground, reluctant to detach himself from the pains and prejudices of humanity, a distant – sometimes sardonic – observer of the goings-on of our world.
Quality-wise, over a half-century as recording and performing artist, Dylan’s career has been more hit-and-miss than Bowie’s. When he was good, he was very, very good. When he was bad, he was dire. But the irony cannot be missed: Bowie has taken the soul of early Dylan to channel his sentiments, while Dylan has chosen to discard that young self – that politically, socially and culturally aware self – in favour of pursuing a down-home Americana, the music of the popular imagination (ballads, even!). One’s now wistful, the other’s become warier.
Dylan so tired of the ‘conscience of the generation’ thing (a label given by the folk brotherhood, one that he never really cared to live up to) that he went electric in a two-fingered gesture to those who’d dare anoint him. So out went the protest songs, and the anti-war ditties, and in came the hallucinatory images, creations lightning-streaked by an absurdist strain. Dylan’s imagery was an outlet for his febrile mind, little rooted in belief and reality. Bowie’s subject matter in ‘The Next Day’, on the other hand, is very much of the moment – and more disturbing for being so. It’s almost as if Bowie is imagining Dylan’s Desolation Row in the context of the 21st century, with all its dystopia and its disconnectedness.
Whereas Dylan’s last three albums after ‘Time Out Of Mind’ came across as lightweight – with the odd flash of the old Zimmerman chutzpah – Bowie’s latest has heft and substance. He has so much more to say, and wants to say it (the printed lyrics on ‘A New Day’s’ sleeve echo Dylan in their stream-of-consciousness-like arrangement). The Minnesotan began as a young chap trying to set the world to right in his earthy folk songs; the London boy seemed set in his folk-impressionistic ways, content to mine English dance-hall traditions and follow the psychedelic path of that King of British Whimsy, Syd Barrett.
Of course, Bowie would get serious later on, the loquacious poet-artiste (would-be Dylan?) turning Cassandra in ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Station to Station’. Kaleidoscopic in his musical ambition, he would go on to create the soundscape of the future with fellow avant-gardist Brian Eno in the brilliant Berlin Trilogy. Dylan, post the confessional masterpiece of ‘Blood On The Tracks’ and the gypsy strut of ‘Desire’, would veer between pseudo-spiritualism (‘Long Train Coming’), half-baked political posturing (‘Infidels’), welcome earnestness (‘Oh Mercy’) and fin-de-siècle jeremiads (‘World Gone Wrong’, ‘Good As I Been To You’). His output in the second half of the 1970s, and for much of the 1980s, oscillated giddily in quality – when he got it right, as in the widescreen opera of Brownsville Girl, he’d blow you away.
Before he so stunningly emerged from creative hibernation this year, Bowie’s last great album was the muscular ‘Scary Monsters’ (1980), a record that was as fiercely Orwellian a statement as the decade that spawned it. And while the rest of the 1980s was otherwise forgettable for the erstwhile Thin White Duke (his back-to-rock-roots Tin Machine project sinking rather embarrassingly), the 1990s saw him return to his experimental best (assimilating dance and industrial beats, for example, in the intrepid ‘EART HL ING’). Even if album sales stalled, the esteem in which this now elder statesman of British rock was held only went up.
And it’s Bowie who looks to have more relevance in 2013, the thinker-artiste likely to leave the more lasting epitaph (he’s certainly prepared to “Turn and face the strain” [Changes, ‘Hunky Dory’]). Bowie has come up with a magisterial work that’s replete with the same lyrical intensity, razor-sharp intellect and musical vision he’s always been noted for. Changes, then, seem to have bypassed Dylan, but not Bowie, the indefatigable challenger of cultural convention. Of the old dogs from the 1960s, the Londoner’s the last man standing, as defiant and as unbowed as once Dylan was.