This Week in Music, March 12, 2013: David Bowie doesn't let us down

David Bowie: The Next Day

New release (ISO/Columbia)
Photo by Jimmy King

This is the best David Bowie album since . . . I'm not gonna go there. Mostly because everyone seems to disagree on just which old album should be put there. But make no mistake: The Next DayBowie's first release in 10 years, is an excellent comeback.

Always at his finest when defying expectations, Bowie has set us up with plenty of red herrings. That album cover: Is he just being "Heroes" again? No, the sounds and personas span his entire career. That first single, "Where Are We Now?": Is it indicative of the record as a whole? No, it's the sole dreamy ballad. The second single, "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)": Is that indicative? No, it's a relatively straightforward toe-tapper that's outnumbered by much more peculiar stuff - wonderful stuff that lurches ("Dirty Boys"), staggers ("Love Is Lost"), and stutters ("If You Can See Me") yet never loses its visceral authority.

Sure, Reality rocked, but that previous album lacked the gravitas of this one, where the production (by Bowie and Tony Visconti) and the mix (by Visconti) allow the music to both dig deep and thrash about. The musicians are perfectly in sync with the material, led by guitarists Gerry Leonard, David Torn, and Earl Slick (yes, there's plenty of guitar here) and also featuring bassists Gail Ann Dorsey and Tony Levin, as well as drummer Zachary Alford. Bowie's voice occasionally betrays its age (and is sometimes mixed down a bit), which shouldn't be surprising when you consider his 2004 heart attack and subsequent hiatus. But more often than not, it retains its tone and sense of urgency.

Speaking of illness and age: Death is mentioned a lot in the lyrics, but Bowie isn't obsessed with his own demise. Rather, he applies the topic elsewhere and examines it. So the "stars" that are out tonight aren't celestial phenomena but celebs and phenoms, both "dead ones and the living": "They burn you with their radiant smiles / Trap you with their beautiful eyes / They're broke and shamed or drunk and scared / But I hope they live forever." Bowie is in similarly trenchant form throughout The Next Day. On the title track: "The priest, stiff in hate, now demanding fun begin / Of his women dressed as men for the pleasure of that priest." On "Love Is Lost": "It's the darkest hour, you're 22 / The voice of youth, the hour of dread."

I love how Bowie gets in and out of these songs quickly: Most of the 14 tracks are under 4 minutes each. And although there's a Deluxe Edition that adds three bonus tracks, I love how the standard edition ends with "Heat." Blistering rocker? No, it's an edgy meditation that builds to a frightening climax before drifting away. And with that, make no mistake: Bowie may have taken a decade to get to The Next Day, but the wait was worth it.

Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton: Old Sock

New release (Bushbranch/Surfdog; tour dates)

It took four producers to get Eric Clapton's Old Sock into shape (Doyle Bramhall II, Justin Stanley, Simon Climie, and E.C. himself), and the result is remarkable for the consistency of its folksiness. Backed primarily by drummer Steve Gadd, bassist Willie Weeks, and keyboardist Chris Stainton, Clapton serves up a feathery album that's more a vehicle for his voice than his guitar. (Sound familiar?) Here, he covers some of his favorite songs (from his childhood to the present day), including Lead Belly's "Goodnight Irene," the Gershwins' "Our Love Is Here to Stay," Hank Snow's "Born to Lose," Taj Mahal's "Further on Down the Road," and Peter Tosh's "Till Your Well Runs Dry." There are two new Clapton originals among the 12 tracks: "Gotta Get Over," a funky little thing where he hints he might let loose but never really does, and "Every Little Thing," a ballad with a reggae chorus and a children's section that you'll adore, or not. Mostly, Clapton delivers pithy, delicate mini-solos on acoustic, electric, and Dobro guitars. He does stretch out a bit at the end of Gary Moore's "Still Got the Blues," yet the track is diluted by its smooth strings. All told, this pleasant affair kinda floats by like one of the white, puffy clouds on its cover.

Banhart photo

Devendra Banhart: Mala

New release (Nonesuch)
Photo by Ana Kraš

Have you never been mellow? Seems that Devendra Banhart has been mellow since birth. A few times on Mala, it appears he's breaking free from his ultra-quietude. In "Golden Girls," he tells "a young man in a young man's world" to "get on the dance floor." At the end of "Your Fine Petting Duck," the babbling-brook track gives way to a house beat. And on "Hatchet Wound," he threatens to wave his supposed freak-folk flag high, yet ultimately he holds himself back in a muted, lo-fi mist. Banhart can sound like a fully developed Paul Simon on "Daniel," but then he dashes off mere wisps of songs like "Für Hildegard von Bingen," "The Ballad of Keenan Milton," "A Gain," "Won't You Come Home," and the title track. Meanwhile, for someone who, at 31, is indeed a young man, he has an odd outlook on the physical: "I miss my sweet bag of bones," "So much desire there left in me / So much malignance you can't see," "Help me overcome the unloving, ossifying body I'm in." And for a guy who's got a fiancée, he certainly has a pessimistic view of the emotional: "Love's got a way of fading away," "Love not unlike an old drunk pissing the night away," "Love is gonna tell me love don't last . . . / Lover's gonna give me the worst day of my life." To me, Banhart remains an acquired taste. Still, if you've got mellow in your marrow, then by all means, acquire away.