Stewart Lee is Britain’s best stand up comedian. Onstage, he is the pretentious, condescending, flawed, and consequently loveable character of ‘Stewart Lee the Comedian’, tackling topics like religion, politics, marriage, identity, and the small Northumbrian village of Shilbottle, with more subversive thought and measured satire than the Internet produces in a year. As 'Stewart Lee the Human Being', he gives lectures about the art of writing, publishes books that dissect and identify the mechanics that make stand up an art form, and probably exists a bit, just breathing and stuff, without any of us watching him. But today, we’re talking about 'Stewart Lee the Music Reviewer', because he listened to David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars last week, reviewed it, and totally hated it.
The review was the latest episode of Ruth and Martin’s Album Club, an ongoing review series – which you should donate money to because it is independent and great – where guest writers listen to a classic album they’ve never heard before three times and then write their thoughts. You could have guessed Stewart Lee wouldn't like it – it would have been uncharacteristic for him to commit to a piece of writing that just echoed more sentiments of praise into the pantheon of Bowie articles – but the way he went about reviewing it is so free and unshackled by common context, that reading it is a bit like how an astronaut must feel when an earthly wind touches their face for the first time after a long spell in space.
“It makes me feel physically sick throughout and I’ve not enjoyed living with it,” he writes at one point. “I’m told it’s supposed to be about an alien who becomes a pop star but I can’t make head or tail of the story.” Also adding that years of mocking satire have taken the edge off the lyrics: “Time’s been unkind to words like that [alligator, mommapoppa, space invader]. Generations of pop-surrealists (Noel Fielding for example), have made them absurd. I can’t get back into it after that opening. It annoys me so much.”
Whether you like Bowie or not is irrelevant, and it's more about music being subjective. It's a self-aware analysis that is constantly at odds with knowing that the album in question is critically acclaimed but that it simply isn’t to the writer’s taste, which makes for a conflicted and entertaining read. Kinda like how all album reviews would be if we weren’t all crippled by public perception, press campaigns, and our own internal narrative. “It’s not Bowie’s fault, but because of all that Jimmy Saville Top of the Pops footage that whole early 70s glam rock guitar sound now just makes me think of children being harmed,” writes Lee.
Far from a hatchet job, his review is a meditation on all the intricacies that we encounter when we don’t quite connect with an album, that we broadly brushstroke as “it’s shit”. He talks about how an artist’s legend can get in the way of your enjoyment if you’re joining the party a bit too late. He writes about how he envies people who do actually get a lot out of art that he can't connect with. And he points to the difficulty of enjoying music when you feel like you have no emotional ties to it. For a review that essentially concludes in a shrug, it’s one of the better pieces of music criticism you’ll read in 2016.
Credit to the RAM Album Club for commissioning it. You can read the entire article in full right here.