‘Who Can I Be Now?’ — a Bowie retrospective
Christian Bunker | Thursday, September 29, 2016
Even in 2016, music has some nativist moments. People, myself included, are quick to classify artists by decade and country, as if a year or a timezone inherently changes how humans create and experience sound. Luckily, artists like David Bowie are around to absolutely demolish these kinds of preconceptions. Simultaneously a British, American and German artist, Bowie recorded an incredible 25 albums over 53 years that refused to stay within any conceivable system of boundaries. Bowie repeatedly veered off into new genres, diving into new sounds even after reaching the peak of success in an established one. The fact that his last studio album, “Blackstar,” ranks securely among his top five albums ever recorded is further proof that time has no power over his art. His earliest albums, recorded in London, encompass his best known work, including “Space Oddity,” “Life On Mars?” and of course the “Ziggy Stardust” pantheon. His later “Berlin Trilogy,” recorded with Brian Eno, typically garners the most critical acclaim. Even the intermediate “American phase,” which is often overlooked, was immensely productive for Bowie; his work during the time period is captured in the baffling sprawl of a new collection — “Who Can I Be Now?” — which includes over 500 minutes of music from this period. However, the collection is far more than a repackaging of old material used to bait record collectors into dropping a couple hundred bucks; included within “Who Can I Be Now?” is a never-before-released full album by Bowie, titled “The Gouster.”
With an artist as prolific and influential as David Bowie, no work of his can truly be taken out of the context of his career. However, “The Gouster” challenges this notion. Preserved like a time capsule for over 40 years, the record is now completely divorced from its original time. Thankfully, the era in which “The Gouster” was produced remains an intriguing period in the context of Bowie’s career. Much of “The Gouster” was ultimately assimilated into his 1975 album “Young Americans,” a record that is often cited as displaying Bowie’s soul influence. However, Bowie’s interest in the genre really comes forth as pure adoration on the new release. With a backing gospel choir on “Young Americans,” emphatic “grrrs” on “Right,” and call-and-response lyrics appearing on a number of cuts throughout the record, soul music is undoubtedly at the heart of this album. As is expected, Bowie incorporates these influences with grace. The superb use of saxophone throughout makes me want to ship the instrument, or at least a coupon for it, to my favorite bands.
Bowie is generally a very personal artist. His music centers around himself and the characters he assumes, and his face adorns the majority of his record covers. As much of a genius at showmanship and self-advertising as he was with any instrument, Bowie became as much of a brand as a musician for much of the ’70s. However, “The Gouster” does not quite fit with this trend. The music wears its influences on its sleeve and the use of a chorus on several of the tracks reflects a desire for Bowie to rein in his own voice’s presence throughout the album. However, “The Gouster” remains the work of a singular musician. The record is akin to a prism employed in reverse, in which the wonderfully multicolored influences of American soul are condensed into a single stream of pure Bowie light. Nothing demonstrates this better than the album’s greatest moment, in which a gospel choir, which includes no less than soul legend Luther Vandross, builds to a frantic climax before dropping out completely leaving just Bowie to scream, “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?” Only every one of them, you beautiful plastic soul.