Album Review: The Next Day – David Bowie
No matter what some writers at Grantland once believed, nor what internet conspiracists have feared for years, David Bowie is in fact NOT dead. Sure, the world’s greatest British solo artist had been hiding in seclusion since a heart attack abruptly ended his last tour back in 2007, but there have been enough paparazzi photographs of the man engaging in errands on the streets of Manhattan and London for most of us to assume he was just kind of winding down. Having said that, you would think The Thin White Duke resurrected last Sunday before releasing his 24th studio album, The Next Day... or at least, that’s the way much of the media has reacted.
A very peculiar phenomenon occurs to esteemed musical artists as they reach... um, let’s go with “a certain vintage”. They usually head into a dark recording studio in Rick Rubin’s Los Angeles mansion, and record an album (or in Johnny Cash’s case a suite of albums) which serves both as an epitaph and a retrospective. These albums tend to be accompanied by black and white or sepia music videos, focusing primarily on the wrinkles amassed by the revered artist in question, or perhaps on how old their hands look in this modern day of improved picture quality. Such records (or "cerements", as I prefer to think of them) have a habit of depressing me, because they feel more like closing a book than they do like the next chapter in the story, and I fucking despise when things end. I get the impression Bowie feels the same way.
David Bowie could have easily drifted off into the death-adorned landscape of retrospective-land with The Next Day. He could have gazed down upon both the world and his extraordinary career from his penthouse window, missing the 1970s the same way you miss your old room, or your high school, or whatever it is you miss dearly. Instead Bowie decided to take the elevator down to the ground floor, and step out into the spotlight once more, moving forward.... ish.
The album cover for The Next Day provides an interesting metaphoric duality for where Bowie is as an artist in his seventh decade of life. On the one hand, it’s obviously the same image which graced the cover of his legendary 1977 album, Heroes. The image itself has been reduced to a meme-like significance, as a stark white square has been superimposed onto it, and in the center of said square, in black Arial font, is the album’s title. The title itself brings its own level of subtext to the cover, and when you combine all the elements- the original black and white image, the square covering his face, the title, the fact that the old title (Heroes) has been crossed out- it’s obvious Bowie’s razor-sharp artistic instincts are still intact, and he’s still capable of creating massive intrigue within the visual medium as well as the aural. Apparently it is possible to look backwards while still moving forward.
The Next Day begins with its splendid title track and instantly transports you back to the splendors of Bowie’s hallowed Berlin trilogy (also known as the only Bowie records which your pretentious friends allow themselves to enjoy). There is a tangible modicum of swagger to the proceedings from the onset, and the track’s primary hook: “Here I am/ Not quite dying”, showcases a Bowie who is aware of the internet age’s fears regarding his continued existence. A superb confluence of momentum and purpose courses through the opening number, one which has been missing from his releases for years now. This is a welcome surprise in an age where Paul McCartney (my hero) just wants to fall in love and get married again, and again.
The album's initial swagger is replaced by a slightly more ominous tone on Dirty Boys, an attitude-drenched wobbly track with a saxaphone solo (Bowie does love his horns) which Nick Cave would be comfortable crooning on. Once Dirty Boys is over, Bowie decides to take us off-planet for his next cut, because that’s where he fell from and even now it remains his domain. The Stars (Are Out Tonight) was an early promotional single for The Next Day, and it’s the type of intensely-stylized song which only Bowie can pull off without sounding trite. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing, or maybe we’ve been trained to accept this kind of narrative from Bowie over the years, but when the man casts himself as a cosmic observer it feels beyond right... it feels completely natural.
When the album’s fourth track began to emanate from my speakers I got the sensation Bowie had begun swimming away from the shore, and was gaining confidence. It’s after The Next Day's first three tracks where the record truly starts to unfurl, in tracks like the gloomy Love Is Lost; the tangible snarl and bite in Bowie’s voice sets a somewhat different tone as it cuts through the eighth-note-pulse permeating the tune. Where Are We Now? (the album's first promotional single) follows Love Is Lost with what starts off as a meditative ballad, where Bowie contemplates the time we all can't help but waste, before the drums pick up at the 2:49 mark, and provide new form to the composition while elevating the entire experience. Then there’s Valentine’s Day, a subtle treasure which touches on the topic of mass murder as it stars a high school shooter out to get his revenge on the most incongruous of days. If you just read this paragraph and thought: “Wow, Bowie is really pushing the envelope once again”, then you would be correct.
The Next Day is flying by the time its second half comes around. If You Can See Me picks up the energy with a break-neck proggy, disco-infused feel, and free-verse poetry cadence during the verses. I’d Rather Be High is a touching paean to the Greatest Generation, and the trials of the second World War, all cleverly-masquerading as a late-sixties Summer Of Love-esque shuffle. Finally, a few tracks later, How Does The Grass Grow? uses a backwards loop intro to create tension, before eventually a driving organ line propels the track. In comparison to the rest of the album its lyrical quality admittedly leaves something to be desired, but the track still moves well, and deserves some head bobbing.
The final three songs of this album are not just the best stretch of music it possesses, they could very well be (let’s get a little maudlin why don't we?) the last new musical statement David Bowie ever makes (I hope I didn't harsh your mellow too brutally there). I know that last statement seems like it could be a little over dramatic but, considering the fact that the man has no intention of ever touring again (which I’m just mentioning because it bums me out), and that it took him ten years to release The Next Day, the prospects of receiving more new music from this legend can’t possibly be too high.
(You Will) Set The World On Fire is an absolutely blistering "rocker", which depicts the struggles of an up-and-coming folkie trying to make his way through a world which he is eager to both decipher and conquer. There’s no question (You Will) Set The World On Fire is the album’s loudest and wildest song, and hearing Bowie talk to his former self from a position of accomplished greatness is as fascinating as it is meta. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is the album’s most lofty and elegant tune (which is saying something) and, Elvis references aside, it tells the tale of the suburban prison so many accept as their eventual fate (think Pete Campbell in Connecticut). You Feel So Lonely also happens to end with a similar drum beat to the one which kicks off the song Five Years, from the unbelievably incredible Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, which is kind of haunting and profound (thanks, David Bowie). The final song on The Next Day, Heat, is a morose (modern) Scott Walker number which doesn’t sound like anything else on the record, while still encapsulating many of its themes immaculately. There is a near formless quality to Heat which helps create the eerie atmosphere the song is conjured from, and it somehow manages to end the album in that strange black and white, "look at how old I am" place which I alluded to at the beginning of this review.
My apologies for ending this review with a sports reference (I can sense all of your eyes rolling from here), but I thought of the parallel before I sat down to write all of this and it still feels pretty appropriate. Paul Bear Bryant was, by most accounts, the greatest college football coach of all-time. He coached the Alabama Crimson Tide from 1958 to 1982, and over the course of his career he became a giant within his field. Bryant retired from coaching after the end of the 1982 season, and one month after he announced his retirement he died of a "massive heart attack". There are many historians who believe football was Bryant’s sole passion, the only thing keeping him alive, and once it was out of his life he had no reason to be.
One look at Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney is all you need to understand that Rock N’ Roll is keeping them youthful and vibrant. After all, how many 70 year old people do you know who can move like that? As I read the stories and rumors about Bowie’s failing health during the years, I can honestly say I thought about the Bear Bryant circumstance more than a few times. The man hadn’t dropped new music in a decade, or toured for years... maybe his lack of creative output, his stagnation, were the reason for his percieved atrophy. Well now Bowie has returned, with one shockingly great record (the man is 66, for Christ’s sake). I hope The Next Day is the fuel his passion needs to never fade, and that the internet will never be right about his demise.