Wednesday, December 20, 2017

On and Off (and sometimes On Again)

A great mystery in pop music (or any creative field, really) is how an artist can be so "on it" for such a long time and then - just like that - their magic touch evaporates. Of course they don't realise it and they keep on prolifically making and releasing a steady stream of "off it" stuff. Which the diehard fans  sift through dutifully and hopefully for salvageable qualities or indications of a renaissance (hence that fan-critic syndrome of the "it's his/her/their best album since ____"  review). Meanwhile, anyone non-aligned or "normal" in their responses completely writes off the artist and removes them from further consideration.

It's like, "how can someone so bountiful with brilliant and so consistently ahead of the game, abruptly become barren and boring and out of synch"?

Usually, when it goes, it goes forever. Rarely, though, the magic touch mysteriously regenerates itself  -  the comeback that is aesthetic rather than simply financial or crowd-pandering. 

David Bowie is a supreme example of "on it" / "off it" / "on again".

His "on it" phase runs from "Space Oddity" to "Let's Dance" the single, although there are dips intermittently within that sustained run of brilliance ("Holy Holy" being the most nadir-y, although there's other lapses).

DB's "off it" stretch - if you're being realistic and honest - goes from Let's Dance the  album all the way through to 2013. If you want to be charitable or sentimental, you might spare "Little Wonder" or "Loving the Alien" from the stern verdict, or give points for bravery and effort-to-be-interesting with something like Outside.  But really it's a virtually unbroken wall of "off it" - and often direly so.

And then (partially) with The Next Day and (absolutely) with Blackstar, the magic's back - mortality quickening the artistic pulse no doubt.

These thoughts were triggered by coming across this impertinent track, created and released in 1997 for a Resonance FM compilation,  smack dab in the middle of the "off it" phase, and seemingly prompted by David's dalliance with drum & bass and electronica on Earthling, along with his haircut of that time. There seems to have been some kind of prank involved - an advert in the music papers purporting to be from David Bowie and soliciting for ideas from the general public.


  1. Hi
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  2. If you think about it, it actually makes no sense to expect an artist to sustain greatness. We don't expect that from anyone in any other vocation. Every 'Eleanor Rigby' must inevitably have its 'Wonderful Christmas Time.' But we should make a distinction between artists who desperately try to stay abreast of the latest thing (Rod Stewart with Do Ya Think I'm Sexy et al, Bowie in the '90s), and those who don't even try and just keep releasing albums of subpar material that sounds exactly the same, stuff we're expected to buy because it's them (Elvis Costello for the past 30 years).

    About the former (the ones who try new stuff and fail) - I can't think of anything more off-putting than reading an interview with a long-established-but-in-decline artist talking about how they are only interested in the future and have no time for the past. It's become such an interview cliche. I wish for once someone would just say "I don't give a shit about the future! I just want to relive the past!"

    As far as post-peak-mediocrity, I have to admit I find perverse pleasure in trawling through an artist's maligned and forgotten works, the step-children, the forgotten, the laughed at. Maybe it's masochistic, but there's something about trying to discern what made an artist put out a particularly inessential album or song that gives me passing forensic pleasure.

  3. Mmm, agree Blackstar was his best work since Scary Monsters but think the Nile Rodgers collaboration records have undeniable style. Jump They Say delights in exciting paranoia. Outside with Eno is strange and science-fiction, it works, who can forget I'm Deranged from Lost Highway. Earthling can be fun and I Would Be Your Slave is spine-tingling and moving, rediscover, perhaps.

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Jeff Duff, or Duffo, is an Australian singer/cabaret performer in the tenor range, who in his career has used various personae, wardrobe,...