The history of rock music is full of artists with catalogs so vast and sprawling it can be difficult to know where to start. David Bowie is not one of those artists. Repeat after me: Ziggy, Berlin Trilogy, half of Let’s Dance, pause, repeat. What you don’t often hear about are the many high points that arrived later in Bowie’s career. After the travesty that was 1987′s Never Let Me Down — a record Bowie has mostly disowned — and his weird dalliance with the hard-rock group Tin Machine, Bowie began an on-again/off-again relationship with his muse, one that yielded a healthy number of high points that are routinely, unjustly overlooked.
“The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”
One of the infinite upsides of Bowie's oft-heralded chameleonic musical personality is that he can rightly claim to be the godfather of just about anything — glam, goth, garage, you name it. So in 1995, when Trent Reznor started talking incessantly about Bowie's influence on his own music, Bowie did what came naturally and cannily ret-conned himself into being an early pioneer of industrial music as well. The result was Outside, the first in a planned-but-scrapped trilogy about a dystopic future in which something called "Art Crime" — the murder, mutilation and display of human corpses — has become a sensation in the underground art world. The album is creepier and more skin-crawling than it typically gets credit for (particularly the spoken interludes, for which Bowie eerily altered his own voice in order to portray both the story's host of malevolent characters and trembling, helpless victims). "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" is the album's grimy, stomach-churning aesthetic at its most fully-realized, drums pounding and wheezing like a turbine and guitars corkscrewing like a trepanning pole.
Outside may have found Bowie asserting his place as a genre inventor, but he was candidly a follower on 1997's Earthling. Expressing enthusiasm for the burgeoning drum and bass scene, Bowie set about crafting his own version of the movement. The results were mixed: Some of the experiments crackled with life and vitality; the others felt leaden and, 16 years after its release, sound woefully dated. "Little Wonder," though, falls firmly into the first camp. A bright, jittery number, it felt like throwing open the shutters after the gloomy Outside. The drum machine clatters like a tin can full of pop rocks, and Bowie's vocal melody is strangely graceful — gliding beatifically through the song, a benevolent ghost in the center of a hiccupping machine.
"Nothing remains." Those were the first words on Bowie's 2001 reteaming with producer Tony Visconti. The album, Heathen, was an ethereal affair, as if someone had put lyrics to the ominous instrumental B-Side of Low. "Sunday," its opening track, handily sets the tone for the album that followed. Synths glow and expand like bands of sun in early morning, and Bowie — never sounding more like his hero Scott Walker than he does here — surveys a desolate landscape, looking for "cars or signs of life." Though the album was mostly recorded before September 11, the album's — and particularly this song's — lyrics about a vanished humanity and deep-seated existential dread rang eerily true.
“New Killer Star”
"See the great white scar over Battery Park" goes the first line of this song. If Heathen was the accidental meditation on the events of September 11, Reality, released two years later, starts with that tragedy (quite literally) and then pushes forward, trying to make sense of an increasingly puzzling world. And while the title of this song is ominous, its contents feel triumphant; if Bowie often struggled to write memorable choruses in his later period, "New Killer Star" compensates by having two — one gently gliding, the other charging and euphoric ("I've got a better way!"). In between are odd, impressionist lyrics that imagine Jesus on Dateline and look out at a world where gleaming buildings and verdant trees compete for real estate.
“The Next Day”
As it turned out, Bowie's choice to use a modified version of the artwork from his 1977 masterpiece "Heroes" as the cover for The Next Day was no coincidence. The title track, which opens the album, plays like a garish bizarre-world version of "Heroes"-opener "Beauty and the Beast," right down to its sproinging, rusty-coil guitar and seething Bowie vocal. After a 10-year absence, which was preceded by a pair of albums that were respectable but hardly adventurous, "The Next Day" braces like an ice water bath. Its chorus snarls and chomps, Bowie grunting about bodies rotting in hollow trees before diving into the maddening monotony of "And the next day, and the next, and another day." In it, you can hear Bowie regarding his much younger self in the mirror and announcing, "You're still here — so now what?"
“I’m Afraid of Americans”
At first pass, David Bowie's collaboration with Nine Inch Nails for 1995's dual-headlining Outside tour seemed like a passing fad — another of Bowie's canny alignments with a young disciple as a way to gin up his legacy. In truth, though, the pairing was a lot more earnest. As it turned out, Bowie and Trent Reznor were truly simpatico, a fact proven by Reznor's nervy remix of Bowie's 1997 Earthling track "I'm Afraid of Americans." The song, and its brilliant accompanying video, perfectly captures late-'90s pre-millenial panic, Bowie's sly lyrics about globalization perfectly undermined by Reznor's nervous reworking of its jittery digital backdrop. When it finally heaves into the pissed-off bug-eyed humanoid chorus, the terror is almost palpable.
“The Loneliest Guy”
Anchored by a mournful, rising-and-falling piano line by Mike Garson, "The Loneliest Guy" feels like an extract from the moody Heathen rather than the mostly uptempo Reality. Bowie's voice teeters at the upper reaches of his register, sounding reflective and despondent. The title is a misdirection: Bowie declares himself the exact opposite in the song as he takes candid stock of his life reviewing, as he puts it, "pictures on my hard drive," and concluding still, after "all the errors left unlearned," that his life has been full of good fortune.
After the dual attack of Outside and Earthling — both, in their own way, attempts to bolster Bowie's cultural currency — 1999's hours… felt like an exhale, a measured, mostly downtempo offering, the album was easily Bowie's most reflective, taking stock of his career and stripping away most of his legendary artifice in favor of open contemplation. All of this comes through in "Seven," a beautifully moody number based on simple acoustic guitar strumming and Bowie's restrained delivery. Its chorus also feels like a callback to one of Bowie's most indelible numbers, Ziggy Stardust's "Five Years." In that song, Bowie proclaimed "Five years — that's all we've got." Twenty-seven years later, he sang, "I've got seven days to live my life and seven days to die."
“Strangers When We Meet”
Proof that Bowie is still capable of absolute loveliness — even in the context of an album about ritual murder — "Strangers" is as gorgeous a song as Bowie has ever penned. Its graceful melody and high-arcing chorus recalls the optimism and determination of "Heroes," and its muted instrumentation, guitars and keyboards fading in and out with no fixed end or beginning, adds to the song's dreamlike feel, and Mike Garson's cascading piano is elegiac and deeply moving. And beneath it all, a trace of sorrow: "All your regrets ride roughshod over me," Bowie sighs. "I'm so glad that we're strangers when we meet."
The most encouraging thing about The Next Day is hearing Bowie wake with a tremor from his trance of benign respectability. "Dirty Boys" is the most wickedly sleazy he's sounded since Outside, its fat saxophone and nauseous, staggering tempo feeling like 4 a.m. at the world's creepiest old-man bar. For his part, Bowie plays the part of the weird Lothario perfectly, injecting the chorus with a bleak determinism ("When the die is cast, you have no choice") and croaking out the rest of the lyrics in between a guitar that quacks like a poisoned duck.
Originally recorded for Bowie's scrapped 2001 album Toy, "Slip Away" was mercifully rescued and re-recorded for the next year's Heathen. The song, which contains strangely unsettling allusions to bonkers 1970s children's program The Uncle Floyd Show, drifts along spectrally, Bowie's voice sounding melancholy and reflective, as if he's observing his own life dispassionately from some capsule out in space. The invoking of Floyd's puppets Bones and Oogie make the song sound like a lament for lost childhood, except that Bowie was already a grown-up pop star by the time the show debuted in 1974. Instead, it feels surreal and disjointed, its minor-key melody and lines like "down in space it's always 1982" making it feel like the unacknowledged third act in the Major Tom trilogy.
Fittingly used to score the opening credits to David Lynch's 1997 homicidal fairy tale Lost Highway¸ "I'm Deranged" is a song full of dark portent. Its opening line — "Funny how secrets travel" — is instantly unsettling (even more so when heard in the context of a film about a man who saws his wife in half and then scrubs his memory of the act), and Bowie's word choice in the chorus — not "insane," but "deranged" — only accents the overarching mood of malice. It's the sound of a man who's losing his grip but is helpless to stop it, and can only observe in panic.
“You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”
In 1972 Bowie wrote "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," a song that turned '50s doo-wop inside out and put it in service of lyrics about teenage alienation. Forty-one years later, "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" accomplishes the same thing with what feels like the saccharine balladry from the same decade. Bearing a passing similarity to the Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" — now unendurable thanks to countless covers — Bowie belts out a dewy-eyed Exquisite Corpse crooner where each line feeds seamlessly into the next but adds up to a particularly puzzling whole. It's a song that projects "emotion" more than emotion — proof that this deep into his career, Bowie is still the master of meta.
When David Bowie decided to throw himself a 50th-birthday party at New York's Madison Square Garden, he invited a host of friends — among them Sonic Youth, Frank Black, Billy Corgan and the Cure's Robert Smith — to join him in performances from songs across his catalog. For "Hallo Spaceboy" he recruited Foo Fighters, and the casting makes perfect sense. The song is a piledriver, a nonstop avalanche of pulverizing percussion and a vicious Bowie vocal that glancingly references his past ("Do you like girls or boys?") before diving full-bore into empty-eyed nihilism ("So bye bye, love"). It's the nastiest Bowie has ever sounded, the sound of someone cackling as they shove you down a well.
Opening like an odd inversion of "Heroes," "Slow Burn," replaces that song's determination and optimism with the long shadow of doubt. Bowie walks us through a house haunted not by ghosts but by memories, singing in a cracking, panicked voice as Pete Townshend's guitar claws and howls around him. The lyrics are deliberately opaque (and have generated incredible internet speculation), but as with many of Bowie's best songs, "Slow Burn" is more about mood than meaning. The song feels fraught with uncertainty, somber and foreboding.