What Sasha Frere-Jones Gets Right, And Wrong, In His Rare Miss On Bowie

It is unusual for Sasha Frere-Jones to use his bully pulpit in The New Yorker to resist committing to a strong point of view, but when he finished his review of Bowie’s The Next Day with a taunt that “the bar rats can fight it out” over the exact status of the album among Bowie’s canon — declaring it “a fine rock record that is a few hairs away from being among his best,” and that “even the obsessives should be able to accept that” — we were disappointed.

Disappointed because Frere-Jones is, like Jon Mendelsohn, Lester Bangs, R. Meltzer, and Byron Coley before him, among the only voices in the rock criticism of his era that really matter.  While he does not write with anywhere near the pyrotechnical verve of any of these likely mentors, his perch exists at a time where Americans are given the dreary choice between reading the idiots at Rolling Stone, the even bigger idiots who labor under Jon Pareles’ Fidel-like reign at the formerly authoritative New York Times, and the onanistic closed loop in the bell jar that is Pitchfork.  Though it must be acknowledged that Ken Tucker at NPR has a wonderful sensibility, Frere-Jones may be the only main-market rock critic who really has an impact.

So yes, we were disappointed because the passive distancing of “a few hairs away from being among” Bowie’s best violates every rule of resistance to gainsaying, to soft pronouncements,  that we were taught, lo those many years ago, by Andy Schwartz, the great editor of NY Rocker, where we were once a young pup (along with Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, the aforementioned Coley, Glen Morrow, and others.)

If you want to say the album isn’t so good, say it, Sasha.  And if you want to say it’s great, say that.  If it’s somewhere in between?  Find a way of committing to exactly where it stands, without weasel calibrations like “a few hairs away from among his best.”

But that’s not the point of this post, a rare criticism of Frere-Jones.  In his review, Frere-Jones holds up Bowie’s under-appreciated 2002 album Heathen as a “magnificent” collection “with fewer good songs than The Next Day (though) a more cohesive marriage of electronic textures and traditional guitar work, and Bowie was in robust voice.  Bowie and (producer Tony) Visconti worked on that together, and it’s difficult to understand how they could have been so in synch with the moment then but not now.”  So, score a point for Sasha that the production on The Next Day does have that brittle 1980s sound that makes so many of the good albums from that epoch unlistenable today.  And he is right that Heathen, as well as the half-decent follow-up Reality, have a less bombastic, arch sound.  But come on: two of the three best songs on Heathen were written by Black Francis, as if Bowie was so out of it in the 1980s that he only picked up on the Pixies’ genius a decade later.

As between 1) having a production that sounds too much like the ’80s, but a series of great, fresh songs, and 2) a smooth sound set amidst a songwriting dry spell that necessitates having to dip into Black Francis’ bag for inspiration, we’ll take the former.  Frere-Jones is right that the production on The Next Day weakens it, but his inability to commit to what he thinks about it, leaving it to the “bar rats” to decide how good it is, is an abdication of his responsibility.  If an artist played it as safe as he does in his review, we hope he would excoriate them for it.

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