Karma Chameleons
Changing Shape With Bowie and Wilson

With some artists, you know exactly what you’re going to get every time.

The classic example is AC/DC. There’s a famous quote from Angus Young around the time of 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip: “We’ve been accused of making the same album over and over 12 times, but it’s a dirty lie,” he said. “The truth is, we’ve made the same album over and over 15 times.” That’s funny because it gets at an essential truth – AC/DC is a band that found the thing that works for them, and stuck with it. For more than 30 years.

Then there are those artists who settle into a comfortable groove, only to pull the rug out every once in a while. Ben Folds comes to mind – occasionally, he’ll make an a cappella record, or team up with Nick Hornby, or toss out a Fear of Pop. But for the most part, Folds delivers quality piano-based pop music. He’s reliable without seeming rote. That’s actually the path most musicians end up taking. They establish an identity, and shake it up now and then. (Even bland poppers Lifehouse just made an interesting-left-turn sort of record.)

But then there are the artists who steadfastly refuse to be nailed down. The chameleons, the shapeshifters, the masters of disguise. Each album is a surprise, each new guise a way of teasing out new styles, taking new paths. The downside is they’re hard to relate to. Even after decades of work, their identities remain slippery. Frank Zappa is a good example. Zappa made so much music in so many different forms that it’s difficult to get a handle on it, and even harder to figure out the man behind the songs.

The ultimate chameleon, though, has to be David Bowie. His long, strange career is one of the finer mysteries of pop music – he broke big during a time when the genre boxes were very important. Radio needed to know which format to slot him into, record stores needed to know where to rack his albums. And yet Bowie kept slipping from stone to stone, from sci-fi prog to glam rock to electro to experimental noise to that utterly bizarre dance-pop cover of “Dancing in the Streets” with Mick Jagger.

It wasn’t just his 1970s alter egos, although Ziggy Stardust was the prototype that inspired the likes of MacPhisto and Omega and Sasha Fierce and even Chris Gaines. His Berlin trilogy with Brian Eno remains one of the most effective change-ups in pop music history. He worked with Nile Rogers in 1983, and six years later debuted Tin Machine, his angular noise-rock combo. In the ‘90s, he embraced industrial aggression and whirring jungle beats. If you couldn’t keep up, Bowie didn’t care.

The idea of Bowie slowing down in his old age was a tough one to swallow. His two albums from the previous decade, Heathen and Reality, were both middling affairs awash in covers. At age 56, he seemingly disappeared, surfacing only occasionally during the next decade. (His guest spot on Extras was worth coming out of hibernation.) It seemed like he’d found a permanent identity: happy retiree. But because he’s David Bowie, he couldn’t stick with that for long.

Bowie’s 26th album, The Next Day, breaks a 10-year silence. He doesn’t need the money, he doesn’t need the artistic recognition. He’s a 66-year-old legend with nothing to prove. Which is why the urgency and power of this album is such a pleasant surprise. Fourteen new Bowie songs, clocking in at less than an hour (without the three bonus tracks), most of them barnburners. Yes, he released the slow and pretty “Where Are We Now” as the first single. No, most of the album doesn’t sound anything like that.

What does it sound like? How about a David Bowie mixtape? This album looks forward by looking back, taking liberally from Bowie’s vast discography. There’s a little “Beauty and the Beast” in the title track, a bunch of Ziggy Stardust glam, and even some Space Oddity epic folk. Some of it’s funny, particularly the rollicking “Boss of Me,” and some of it is somber, like the swaying “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.”

It’s an album that’s hard to pin down, which is only fitting. It jumps from the blissful “Dancing Out in Space,” with Gerry Leonard’s trademark guitar shimmers floating out over an almost Krautrock expanse, to “You Will Set the World on Fire,” an eruption of blistering riffs and thunderous drums, to closer “Heat,” an almost Scott Walker-esque dirge. Throughout all this, Bowie stretches that worn, yet still strong voice, matching the energy of the loudest numbers like a man half his age.

Much has been made of the cover of The Next Day, which defaces the “Heroes” sleeve with a big white box. Some have felt that Bowie is not adequately respecting his past with this image, but even a cursory listen to the album will show that to be unfounded. This is the sound of a middle-aged Bowie taking stock, celebrating the parts of his career that still thrill him, and creating his 2013 identity from those ingredients. He’s not playing a part here. This is what it sounds like when a lifelong chameleon settles into his own skin. The Next Day sounds like a lot of things, but most of all, it sounds like David Bowie being David Bowie, at last.

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If there’s anyone in Bowie’s native Britain living the chameleonic lifestyle these days, it’s probably Steven Wilson.

Who is Steven Wilson? An excellent question. He’s a 45-year-old genius writer, producer and player best known for two long-running projects: Porcupine Tree, his ever-changing 20-year-old progressive rock band, and No-Man, his only slightly younger atmospheric pop collaboration with Tim Bowness. But that’s only scratching the surface of the multiple identities Wilson has adopted in the past two decades.

There’s the whispery drone of Bass Communion, the clanging electronic craziness of IEM (the Incredible Expanding Mindfuck, don’t you know), the straight-ahead pop of Blackfield, and the surprisingly gentle folk of Storm Corrosion, his project with Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth. And more recently, there’s Wilson’s blossoming solo career, which has found him indulging his jazz fusion tendencies. Very little connects these different projects, except Wilson’s voice and his willingness to try just about anything. (He’s also become the go-to producer and remixer for audiophile bands like King Crimson.)

So who is Steven Wilson? Like Bowie, we may never really know, but at least he’s given us plenty of music to listen to while we puzzle it out. The most recent is his third solo album, which has a marvelously ridiculous title: The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories. But that’s the only ridiculous thing about it. In a relatively concise 54 minutes, Wilson has crafted his masterpiece, a perfect summation of where he has been, and where he’s going.

Opener “Luminol” gets the spazzy, prog-metal stuff out of the way early, crashing to life on a bass-driven jam and then, four and a half minutes in, evolving into a slow-burn journey that brings early Genesis to mind. But then “Drive Home” delivers seven and a half minutes of transcendent beauty, delicate acoustic guitars leading into thick clouds of keyboards. It’s all prelude to the jazzy wonders of “The Holy Drinker,” an amazing metal-fused-with-saxophones stomper with a descending melody that’ll haunt you. Blistering organ lines and flute solos await in the second half.

The record turns melancholy in its final third. The 12-minute “The Watchmaker” is a master class on crafting pretty prog, and its piano-driven middle section is lovely. But it’s the title track that truly sets this album apart. It begins in near-silence, with slowly surfacing piano chords, and Wilson sings of loss: “I need you now, and I need our former life, I’m afraid to wake, I’m afraid to love…” Over its eight minutes, the piece swells – when the songbird melody begins near the four minute mark, it’s almost impossibly beautiful, and as the track explodes into magnificence at the end, the experience is remarkably moving. It may be my favorite Steven Wilson song, and with so many to choose from, that’s saying something.

Wilson has called The Raven his most personal album to date, though he’s couched the lyrics in fables and stories. I don’t feel any closer to knowing who he is after listening to it, but that’s not a drawback. It’s the nature of shapeshifters to leave you uncertain about their own confessions, their own honesty. And in the end, it hardly matters. All stories are true.

What matters is that on this album, Wilson has found a way to bring together his proggy, jazzy, ballad-y and epic sides without succumbing to sprawl. He’s fused his various identities together, and ended up with the closest musical approximation of himself he’s yet delivered. All of which makes this a perfect starting point. If you want a first Wilson album, a good jumping-on point for the ongoing story of one of our finest chameleons, you won’t do better than this.

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It’s hard to believe I’ve never reviewed a Steven Wilson album before. I’ve been a fan for nearly as long as I’ve been writing this column, but somehow, he always slipped through the cracks. If you’d like other great examples of his work, check out Porcupine Tree’s In Absentia and Fear of a Blank Planet, No-Man’s Speak, and Wilson’s previous solo album, the awesome Grace for Drowning.

Next week, some music people can’t believe I like. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Twitter @tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.