It was a frigid February morning and I was huddled with my sister on Orchard Street trying to soak in sunlight to combat the unforgiving wind. I had only been standing there for about 20 minutes, but she and her friends had been on the street since 2AM counting down the moments. We barely noticed when the car pulled up at the curb and the 1975 rolled out, all retro fringe and rockstar shades. Screams erupted as Matty Healy pulled off his sunglasses and sniffed the frozen air, “Oi, it’s blazin’ out here!”
Some 15 minutes later we were inside the LES gallery space rented for their one-day pop-up, a well-kept secret to promote their brand new album:I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It. My sister had hunted down the address only hours before she arrived on the scene, and now some two hundred fans were lining the adjacent blocks waiting for their turn to buy the new music and meet their idols. The bare brick walls were hung with neon signs spelling out new album tracks, and brightly-colored photographs in stark white frames played on lyrical themes. Nothing could stop me now: I was going to buy the boxed set. I had almost preordered it originally, instantly attracted by the neon-pink lucite casing and the idea of exclusive 7” singles, but the price tag seemed steep—now that I had a chance at an autographed copy of the LP, it seemed well worth it.
Bubble-wrap trailed out of my pockets as I ascended the back stairway, barely registering the photographs hung along the hall. My eyes had barely adjusted to life in neon pink when I realized this was no formal record signing meet-and-greet. The minimal loft space had been converted into a sort of listening lounge, with a well-worn black leather sofa totally abandoned as the band wandered free, chatting with fans, taking selfies, sharpie-ready for autographs. Each wall held massive prints of album artwork, including the neon sign spelling out the impossibly long album title, coating everything with a candy-colored glow. I barely registered the upbeat Haim song piped in as I embarked on my signature-collecting mission, LP clutched tightly and phone camera-ready in pocket. At one point, I found myself nervously chatting to Ross MacDonald about the album, admitting I had listened to it on loop since it had leaked a couple days earlier. “It’s a bit all-over-the-place, don’t you think?” He asked with a certain degree of concern in his voice.
At first listen, it is. The band’s now-signature, self-titled opener is given a brighter, chorus-driven vocal, turning it from sort of sleepy to deliberately dreamy before launching straight into the retro-funky Love Me. The transition from swelling synth and slow vocal to Bowie-Chic guitar is a little jarring, but maybe intentional considering the dialog proposed by the leading single’s lyrics. That said, Love Me remains among my favorite tracks on the album: aside from the obvious musical similarities, the lyrics read like a Millenial Fame, equally cynical in a new age language. It’s the same cynicism that pervades songs like Change of Heart, which feels like the disillusioned follow-up to their self-titled LP’s the City. It’s the falling-out-of-love story after the romance of Robbers dies–
“You used to have a face straight out of a magazine Now you just look like anyone
I just had a change of heart
I feel as though I was deceived I never found love in the city
I just sat in self-pity and cried in the car”
But it’s not all twenty-something bitterness and upset. One of the album’s standouts is the ethereal, choral-driven This Must Be My Dream, an upbeat, synth-pop plea of adolescent optimism that simply sticks with you. Like She’s American and the Sound, it’s got a catchy, danceable beat that distracts you from the admittedly garbled, Manchesterese lyrics long enough that you might be surprised by the actual words:
“You got excited and now you find out that your ‘girl’
won’t even get you undressed or care about your beating chest”
Personally, I think the album might have been better ending on the following track, Paris. The relaxed, nostalgic vibe is a pleasant wind-down from some of the album’s quicker-paced tracks without bringing down the mood or inducing sleep–but the band continues with two additional tunes. Nana and She Lays Down are both absolutely heartbreaking, tragic songs backed by a simple acoustic guitar, bringing the album to a strange, unsettling end. If they had been anywhere else, I might be able to overlook the general air of melancholy peppered through the record’s more electronic tracks. Concentrated at the end, however, it’s an unavoidable fact: this is kind of a really sad album. It tells stories about lost identities, painful breakups, faith questioned, and deaths faced. But when wrapped in a package of synthesizers and pop guitar riffs, they seem almost idyllic. There’s a romance to the kind of jaded cynicism the 1975 is peddling—a kind of absurdist idealism.
While the musical style does jump from chill out groove to new generation funk to acoustic heartbreak ballad, the mood of I Like It When You Sleep… makes it a logical follow-up to the band’s 2013 EP. If the 1975 was about sex and drugs and making memories with friends, I Like It When You Sleep… is about facing the world after teenage dreams begin to melt away. You might not know who you are, you might not recognize your relationships, you might even lose the people closest to you, but you can be damned stylish and look good doing it.
From the moment I saw the strange, beautiful, baffling video for “Blackstar,” I knew there was much more to David Bowie’s new release than we initially see. Even beyond the avant-garde sound and experimental influences, there was something going on behind the music and lyrics that left my mind buzzing. By the time “Lazarus” was released, I was positive there were some deeply esoteric forces at work behind the scenes.
It’s no secret that Bowie steeped himself in the occult–he obsessively studied the work of master magician Aleister Crowley during his years in Berlin, but references to the Wickedest Man in the World begin as early as Hunky Dory. It’s a common phenomenon that people return to religion at the end of their lives, but Bowie was never one to take well-traveled roads. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I saw the visual references littered throughout the “Blackstar” video. “Uniform of imagery,” indeed…
It began with the astronaut’s corpse. We last saw Major Tom somewhere in space, significantly less human than his previous incarnations. We bid him farewell and buried him in moon dust. But “Blackstar” sees him ressurrected, his skeleton bejeweled, made precious again in death. In this sense, the album itself is something of a catacomb saint: while many would have heard the chant-like harmonies and avant-garde progressions and dismissed them as the inaccessible musings of an artist who had officially done it all before, Bowie’s death turned the release into something magical. It becomes a relic, one final token to remind us of the miraculous career he had as an artist. It’s impossible to look at a Van Gogh or Rothko without thinking of the painters’ untimely ends: Blackstar will likely become a work inseparable from its author’s death. But I don’t necessarily think Bowie meant it to be anything else. It was timed and released specifically to coincide with his passing. This was a sign off.
Excavated from the ruins, Saint Tom is taken by a young girl with a tail—video director Johan Renck said Bowie had specifically requested the tail, but wasn’t quite sure why. Bowie himself dismissed it as something merely sexy, but nothing in this video is merely anything. The tail only made sense to me when I put it in the context of the setting, presumably the Villa of Ormen, as referenced in the lyrics. Ormen, it turns out, is not only the name of a town in Norway, it also translates in English as “serpent.” So that Villa of Ormen becomes the Town of the Serpent, and the girl with the tail could be seen as a sort of uncoiled Ouroboros. In retrieving the skull and bringing it back to the people of Ormen, she repurposes it as an object of worship, beginning a new cycle in Tom’s story. The feverish, vibrating dance performed by the worshippers immediately reminded me of voodoo—the possessed devotees in ecstasy before Ghede Tom, now an icon of death and life, sex and oblivion.
And this isn’t even where things get strange. In researching some of the symbolism in this post, I fell down an internet rabbit hole of weird. In addition to theories about terrorism, Robert Chambers, and everything in between, I came across a peculiar tumblr account filled with hypnotically creepy images directly corresponding to lyrics and themes not only in “Blackstar” and its music video, but also to the album’s second single, “Lazarus.” But the Villa of Ormen tumblr was created within hours of “Blackstar’s” release, and a full month and change before any hint of “Lazarus.” Needless to say, it’s created a stir…
So what do we make of this beautiful, brain-rattling mess of symbols left for us to ponder? Maybe it alludes to Bowie’s ultimate spiritual leanings, or his return to the Gnostic fold; maybe it’s the wrap-up for a character Bowie felt had outlived his purpose again. Maybe Bowie was warning us about his own death and we all missed the message—or maybe it was just a great story, period. There may not be any connection with Chambers after all, but I think it’s safe to say that like the King in Yellow, the brilliance of “Blackstar” and its timing, its mystery, and its relation to its author’s death will drive us all mad in admiration.
The chorus of Manson’s “Heart-Shaped Glasses” jarred me awake just after 3AM. My phone was ringing for the second time that night–it was my sister. With one eye open, I flicked the silencer and put it back on the nightstand. I hadn’t seen the flood of text messages that was coming in, nor the countless Facebook messages and tags I had gotten. I went back to sleep like nothing had happened.
“I’m so sorry.” It was 8AM, and my boyfriend woke me up. “It’s really bad news.” I ran down a mental list of what could have happened, bracing myself for the worst–cancelled plans, a sold-out tour, a family emergency. The death of a lifelong idol and role model never even crossed my mind. Even when I heard the news that David Bowie had passed away, it seemed unreal–his 69th birthday was days ago, he had released a brand new album and two music videos. He had never felt more alive to me than he had just days before, while I listened to Blackstar, pulling apart lyrics to analyze the occult themes and esoteric influences. It was all impossible.
I have never been one for idol worship. I’ve never imagined myself weeping at news of a celebrity death, but there I was, laying in bed, tearing up about the passing of a man I had never met. David Bowie and I had never shared more than New York airspace, but he had touched so much in my life. If ever there had been a model for the phoenician cycle of rebirth and reinvention that I live by, it was David Bowie. From humble beginnings as a soulful saxophone player, Bowie reimagined himself as a junky astronaut, an alien messiah, a decadent schizophrenic, and a hard-edged romantic. So many identities came and went over his career, heralding new musical styles, total image overhauls, and driving philosophies, that it’s sometimes difficult to think of Bowie as a singular entity. That doesn’t even account for his film characters–the Man Who Fell to Earth recently experienced new life in the off-Broadway Lazarus, and his infamous Goblin King set my nearly-unreachable standards for romance in Labyrinth. In fact, the news of Bowie’s death felt like the final nail in the coffin for my childhood.
Staring at my ceiling this morning, it seemed ironic that Bowie’s last single was “Lazarus” (“Look up here, I’m in Heaven!/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now/Look up here, man, I’m in danger”). In fact, Blackstar as a whole is laced with references to mortality and resurrection, spoken both plainly in vernacular and in the language of master magicians and occultists. It’s a common phenomenon to turn to religion at the end of life, and it seems Bowie was no exception in his own way–the esoteric album was specifically planned to coincide with the end of his life. The release of “Lazarus” was a very particular choice.
While the a world without Bowie is difficult for my millennial brain to comprehend, the post-Bowie world is richer for the legacy he leaves. From glam to goth, David Bowie had his hands in everything. I can’t think of a single musical artist I admire who would not count him among their top influences. His finger was perpetually on the pulse of popular culture–the drug-addled space man of the 60’s, the bisexual, androgynous alien saviour of the 70’s, the global superpower of the 80’s, and now, the catacomb saint resurrected.
This evening, my sister and I stood on Lafayette Street waiting to pay tribute to our fallen idol, clutching cameras with frozen fingers and shivering as much with emotion as cold. Strangers were crowded around the block, and I was struck by the variety of people around me–a young couple in front of us touched hands as they snapped pictures of the line on their phones, while a man behind us rubbed tearing eyes while he stared at the glitter-strewn sidewalk. A middle-aged woman in a puffy purple coat held a massive bouquet of magenta roses, and her friend carried a moon-shaped sign to lay on the pile. This afternoon, I saw newscasters and photographers buzz about to capture tourists in parkas and soccer-moms with their stacked bobs laying bouquets of pastel flowers against the wall. Flamboyant, lite-brite expressionists and conservative, steel-faced professionals alike contemplated the sprawl of prayer candles and memorial portraits with a shared sense of gravity while I snapped photos on black and white film on an antique camera. Now, somewhere down the block, “Space Oddity” played out and the crowd sang in unison, clapping together to punctuate the music: nothing unified these people except Bowie–he had touched their lives, changed their personal histories, and here they gathered to mourn their rock and roll saviour.
It seems impossible that Bowie is gone–he is undoubtedly one of the most revolutionary musical minds of our time. But I can’t bring myself to join in the chorus of “rest in peace,” not because I don’t want the best for his soul, his family, his legacy, but because he was so prolific, so varied and far-reaching that I can’t help but pray for perpetual, prolonged exposure. Blackstar is fresh in the public eye, its singles still running the circuits. They’ve still got a ways to go. They still have work to do. Surely, such a driven, ambitious spirit won’t retire simply because the body that contained it for 69 years has expired. It will find a way to endure.
–and so I leave you with that spirit’s latest expression, David Bowie’s final video, the truly genius, utterly heartbreaking, remarkably profound “Lazarus.” Godspeed, Bowie–you really are free.
2016 comes with promises of big new releases from so many artists–David Bowie drops an album later this week, and that’s just the second week of January. I, for one, am on the edge of my seat for what’s to come. New albums can set the entire soundtrack for your life, and new releases serve as milestones to measure against–I know I’m looking back at where I was when Bowie’s last album reached my ears, looking at how far I’ve come since I drove around memorizing the lyrics to “Where Are We Now?” –and I know 2015 will be measured against some seriously killer albums in memory. I’ve rounded up some of the most memorable releases of 2015, albums that will forever live in my mind as markers of where I was and where I’ll go.
By the time the Pale Emperor was released in January, I had all ready been stalking critical reviews and sneak peaks for a while. In fact, I had tickets for Marilyn Manson‘s corresponding tour before the CD I pre-ordered ever hit my mailbox. Despite the fact that Born Villain wasn’t everything I had hoped it to be, I had high hopes for his 9th studio album–I recognized the more classic goth-rock influences he had drawn on for Villain (that very Bauhaus verse in “the Gardener,” tho) and I was hoping for more. I could tell by the third track (and “the Third Day…”) that what Manson brought was less Bauhaus and more blues–this was the soulful, sophisticated Manson, the Mephistopheles of Los Angeles in bespoke suits and Italian leather so far removed from the Antichrist Superstar who shocked us with bondage and blood. “Cupid”‘s witch drums might have pounded for the television series Salem, but the magic of this album was more hoodoo than witchcraft–the murky throb of “the Birds of Hell Awaiting” transported me straight to the banks of the Mississippi River. While I walked around New York with my headphones on, I dreamed of New Orleans for months. –Sure, Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals are classics, but the Pale Emperor, arguably his most mature offering to date, sits very steadily at the top of my favourite Manson albums.
The Maine doesn’t fit my usual musical profile–they’ve gone from pop-punk to classic rock and roll, and their Arizona roots give them a certain down-home flare that normally wouldn’t appeal to me. But since my sister played Pioneer ad nauseam over so many family car trips, I’ve developed a soft spot for them. When “English Girls” went live in February, I could tell something was different. The hint of 90’s Rock I had heard in Pioneer and ForeverHalloween was back with a totally new energy behind it, turning it playful and nostalgic rather than brooding and edgy. That’s not to say that edge was gone–AmericanCandy dropped in March, and along with it came some seriously moody tracks. Listen to “24 Floors,” really hear the words, and try not to cry. Go ahead, I dare you. “Am I Pretty?” undoubtedly strikes a chord for their longtime teenage fans, but anyone who’s ever been insecure about their social footing can identify–the same is true for most tracks on this strikingly self-aware album. Despite that, it’s one of my go-to feel-good albums, mellow without sedating, fun but reflective.
I was raised on the complexities of Baroque music and I found a familiar thrill in the classically-touched art rock of Muse. I spent so many summers rocking out to Origin of Symmetry and passed chilly winters with Absolution—Black Holes and Revelations had its own place in my car for years. When the Resistance tour came to town, I nabbed tickets without a second thought. So when the 2nd Law happened…well…let’s just say it was a tough break. Their last four albums were practically perfect–it sounds a little irrational that I’d let one lackluster release break my heart, but as far as I was concerned, Muse were all but disbanded. Which is why Drones almost escaped my notice. When Spotify told me it dropped in June, my reaction was basically “may as well.” Talk about underestimation. From the opening strains of “Dead Inside,” I could tell my Muse was back. Although they sport some heavily political lyrics, the new tracks are full of the aggressive energy I enjoyed from Absolution and Resistance. “Mercy,” with its oddly predictable stadium-rock vibe and the second single off the album, seemed a strange follow up considering the strength of other tracks like “Reapers” or “the Handler” (though the first was used as a promotional single on YouTube)–but it charted fairly high in the US, so I guess I’m in the minority. “Revolt,” November’s third single offering, was much more my speed (though only Belgium seemed to agree).
Say what you want, Duran Duran is still one of my all-time favourite bands, and 2010’s All You Need Is Now remains one of my favourite albums period. I didn’t question their summer tour before I had tickets in hand, but when I heard they were releasing a new album I properly flipped. The single was released that same week, an upbeat, super-poppy collaboration with Janelle Monáe and Nile Rodgers (of disco heavyweights Chic, and former producer for Duran) called “Pressure Off,” followed quickly on by promotional releases of a handful of other tracks–including the title track, Paper Gods. The album officially dropped in September, and with it a deluxe version featuring three bonus tracks (seen above between my teeth)–it’s a great collection of dance tracks, and the upbeat pop tunes were a fantastic soundtrack for stress-free, (dare I say?) cheerful commuting, but I felt like the album lacked the meat of some of its predecessors. –that is, until I saw some of the new tracks performed live. “Last Night in the City,” and “Danceaphobia” come alive on stage (and without Lindsay Lohan’s deadpan narration), and the band’s energy added an entirely new layer of emotion to more lyrical tracks like “What Are the Chances?” (In fact, the new stuff is so good live, I saw them three times during their promotional tour–they’ll be back this summer with the official production!) That said, “Face for Today” feels like what I loved most about their 2010 release–a driving beat, infectious tune, and a chorus that sticks in your head for hours, and “the Universe Alone,” with its soaring melody and throbbing beat, is a beautiful song with some seriously provocative lyrics.
I liked the 1975‘s self-titled release as much as the next girl (which is to say a lot), but “Robbers” can only get me so far. When my sister texted me that a new single was live online, I was on Spotify in record time–“Love Me” was the first release since their rosy rebrand, and I was dying to see whether the colour had creeped into their shoegazey sound. The answer was an instant and resounding yes, it had–with a funky baseline and soaring synth, the new track is disarmingly fun, fantastically retro, and actually downright danceable. Don’t worry, ladies: it’s still got the heat of their previous singles–you might not want to watch the corresponding video in polite company. Though released digitally as a single, their next full album (with its title totally chock-full of words) won’t drop until the end of February. To tide us over, they leaked another track, “Ugh,” in charmingly vintage style on the radio. If you’re hungry for more, it’s worth listening to the band’s interview on what’s to come–I’ve all ready got it on order (and on pink vinyl!) to devour as soon as possible.
Sometimes, things don’t quite go as planned. When I set my intentions for 2014, I cast out my nets for opportunity, travel, and good times with friends and family. But like any road we travel, we sometimes hit some bumps along the way–and just weeks into the year, I’ve been faced with some particularly impressive potholes. It’s frustrating: just when you resign to put all the bad behind you and achieve better in the future, that negativity places itself directly in your path again. But that doesn’t mean the Universe isn’t listening.
In December, I came across my old copy of Belladonna–once inside my car, it kept a firm hold on my CD player for the better part of the month. The songs were familiar, the music all part of distant memories of my adolescent years–but it was as if I was hearing the lyrics for the first time. Perhaps now, as an adult, I connected with them on a different level, but it was as if everything I was thinking about life was reflected back at me. Although the CD player in my car has spun a few albums since, I’ve been hearing Stevie’s words everywhere–I can’t seem to turn on a radio or be near a sound system without hearing one of her classics. I’ve even heard a few Fleetwood Mac gems. Some people would probably tell me it’s a coincidence, or that her involvement with a certain smash hit television series has renewed some of her public interest, but I can’t help but feel that the Universe might be trying to tell me something.
Listen carefully to the lyrics–think of them as an incantation for peace of mind. No matter what life throws at you, you are infinite. Within you are all the tools you will ever need to overcome any situation. The Universe has not given you anything you cannot handle because you can handle anything. Just reach inside yourself and draw out your power. You are a magical creature, “one small part of forever”…