I’ve been excited by the prospect of this album for a while now. I’ve been trying not to get carried away with that because it’s easy to see two major potential problems with any new album: it’s been nearly a decade since the last album, and that implies a lack of currency and practice in songwriting that could lead to an inferior product; and Bowie is no longer a young man, some artists improve over time and some don’t, but it is something to consider.
I have now listened to the album enough times that I feel like I should be able to comment with some amateurish insight, but I can’t actually remember any of the tracks at all. This may be a problem in the way that I tend to listen to albums, which is that I need a hook, one or two tracks that are compulsive, in order to attune my ear and focus on the album. Bowie’s last few albums have managed that, one way or another. Reality had a fantastic cover of “Pablo Picasso” and both “Never Get Old” and “Fall Dog Bombs The Moon” grabbed my attention. And so on.
To an extent, this album reminds me of Bob Dylan’s Modern Times, which despite Ivan’s recommendation, never really worked for me for much the same reason.
This line of thinking prompted me to think about how I listen to Bowie compared to others, and I have come to realize that actually I don’t really listen to his albums, so much as custom best-of lists. The main exception is Scary Monsters. I’m not sure what that means, if anything, but it is an interesting point of difference with most artists where I tend to listen to most of an album, perhaps only skipping one or two tracks that I dislike. I suspect that most people cherry-pick a lot more, especially in the days of the iPod. Singles have long been a sales technique for albums, which is perhaps where my listening habit comes from… but singles are now possibly mostly selling themselves.
Sometimes it takes a while for an album’s virtues to come across. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of fairly mainstream and straightforward rock, especially thrashing the Foo Fighters*, and I intially suspected part of the problem here is just changing gears into a different music channel. After another listen through, I think perhaps the problem is the opposite: this album sounds a bit like Bowie doing Rock, rather than Bowie just doing his thing.
*Whatever their origins, I think they’re a pretty good working definition of where the mainstream is right now, partially because it’s been pulled toward where they are.