So this is what it’s like to be astonished by a new David Bowie album. Though I was living and breathing way back in the fall of 1980, I was much too young to have appreciated the release of Bowie’s last masterwork Scary Monsters. The thirty-plus years that separate Scary Monsters from his latest release haven’t exactly found Bowie in creative exile, wandering in the desert. In this time, he’s put out a handful of terrific singles and two very respectable albums – but “respectable” is faint praise for a giant who, during his heyday, created countless classic singles and nine unimpeachable albums in breathless succession over the course of ten years or so.
The enthusiasm that first followed the surprise announcement of The Next Day a few weeks ago (!), on Bowie’s 66th birthday, seemed more like dutiful goodwill afforded to a beloved artist rather than realistic hopes for a great album. The Next Day turns out not only to clear the low bar we tend to set for rock’s elder statesmen: Bowie’s new album rivals Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft” as a triumph that requires no qualification or apology for age.
For “Love and Theft”, Dylan reshaped himself into the pre-rock Song and Dance Man he always claimed to be and delivered some of the finest music of his career. Bowie – no longer the chameleon – proudly returns in a unity of his many personas, as if while orbiting the Earth in suspended animation they had melded into a single being. This is no “comeback” for David Bowie. Rather, it is a magnificent continuation: an ellipsis connects his nine earlier masterpieces to his tenth, The Next Day.
As Ann Powers recently noted in a typically insightful piece for NPR, Bowie may have receded from the spotlight in the last decade, but his influence on popular music has been as potent and wide-ranging as ever. The Next Day emphasizes the contrast between master and mimic. Bowie doesn’t yet need an understudy.
The album’s many playful, reflexive winks at the Bowie mythos (from the album artwork on down to the “Five Years” coda on “You Feel So Lonely You Can Die”) shouldn’t distract from these fourteen superb songs, some of the most tuneful – and in some cases, daring – of his career. “Where Are We Now?,” a lovely and contemplative homecoming to the Berlin of Bowie’s celebrated triptych, was an intentional curveball-choice for a lead single. It’s not The Next Day’s only ballad. The album slows to a finish with plastic-soul bombast (“You Feel So Lonely You Can Die”) and a stunning dirge (“Heat”). But the vast majority of The Next Day is vibrant, even delirious, roaring with Bowie’s heaviest rockers and teeming with guitar hooks that just beg to be lovingly re-appropriated by James Murphy.
Longtime producer Tony Visconti and the expert session musicians who brought vitality toHeathen (2002) and Reality (2003) return to inject The Next Day with joyful noise. Bowie’s lyrics at times darken the album’s sonic radiance: with a medieval tyrant (“The Next Day”), a school gunman (“Valentine’s Day”), and the unwilling participants of war (“I’d Rather Be High” and “How Does the Grass Grow”). “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” casts a gimlet eye on the early-sixties Greenwich Village music scene. Totalitarian angst practically suffocates “If You Can See Me.”
“Here I am, not quite dying,” Bowie sing-growls on the riotous title track, which opens the album by kicking down the front door. The Next Day burns and raves with such miraculous moments. A train of elephants seems to march alongside a fat sax lick through the bluesy “Dirty Boys,” until the song turns feather-light during its chorus. The incessant, anxious ostinato of “Love is Lost” breaks into the slow swoon of “Where Are We Now?,” just as three minutes of whirling cacophony resolves with a glorious major chord on “If You Can See Me.” The mournful, psychedelic interplay between the guitar and synth on “Dancing Out in Space” could have been ripped straight from one of the Berlin albums. Two of Bowie’s oldest obsessions – the cosmos and celebrity – collide onThe Next Day’s resplendent standout “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).”
The Next Day feels like David Bowie’s swan song (again, that cover art). It almost certainly will be if he waits another decade to record a follow-up. Visconti claims there’s more to come, and soon. What an exit it would be, though. The Folkie, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Melancholy Experimentalist, the Rock God, the Goblin King, and the Elder Statesman all finally converged on a single man. Cue a reading from Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
From the charged chaotic bustle of its opening track, The Next Day is the sound of a man fully engaged and energised by life and his own musical past. On January 8, David Bowie celebrated his 66th birthday by unleashing his first new music in 10 years on an unsuspecting world.
The surprise may have faded, but now a full scale celebration can commence because The Next Day, the 24th studio album of his career, is quite simply one of Bowie’s greatest achievements. In the decade since he released his last album, Reality, the concerns for David’s health that followed his 2004 emergency heart surgery have been compounded by the starman’s almost total withdrawal from public life.
Many assumed an ailing Bowie was counting the cost of living a fast and dangerous life as he went under the radar in his New York-based retirement with model wife Iman and 12-year-old daughter Alexandria. But listening to this album, it’s easy to imagine Bowie hearing the rumours with wry amusement.
From the charged chaotic bustle of its opening title track, The Next Day is the sound of a man fully engaged and energised by life and, indeed, his own musical past.
1. THE NEXT DAY
The Dame’s first shot across the bows is delivered in droll, fast, furious and funny style. Guitars duel against a frenetic bustling beat and searing string arrangement. The lyrics could be playfully alluding to his health scare: “Here I am, not quite right/Plenty more shadows on the dancefloor for me”. A Diamond Dogs dystopian future is also suggested as the narrator goes “chasing through the alley”, professing he can’t get “enough of that Doomsday song”.
2. DIRTY BOYS
Anyone fearing that the contentment of married life has detached demon Dave from his bedhopping bisexual past can rest easy. This sleazy bump ’n’ grinder, edged along by Steve Elson’s rudely suggestive baritone sax, is funky musical molasses – an irresistible mutation of the ‘plastic soul’ sound he pioneered on Young Americans. Delicious.
3. THE STARS (ARE OUT TONIGHT)
With Dave on acoustic guitar, this cautionary anthem, dealing in both celebrity and destiny – “They’re waiting to make their moves on us/The stars are out tonight” – has a clear Ziggy Stardust allusion which is memorably picked up later on the album.
4. LOVE IS LOST
No one does inner turmoil, fear, unease and mournful longing quite like Bowie. Those qualities, reflected in some of his greatest tunes, are captured here in a robotic Berlin-era groove featuring Gail Ann Dorsey on bass and Gerry Leonard contributing an angry guitar squall under Dave’s doom-laden swoon announcing “this is the darkest hour”. It is a song for our time and all time, beautifully setting up the album’s introductory single.
5. WHERE ARE WE NOW?
Tentatively piecing together remnants of a dimly recalled past into a meditative prayer, Where Are We Now? is not afraid to show the tenderness and frailty that comes with age. It also boasts the melodic gift of a master.
6. VALENTINE’S DAY
Despite its title, the chances of this melodically memorable stormer taking its place as a cupid hitpick alongside Heroes may be compromised by its alleged subject matter, a high school shooting. Even so, the commanding vocal, aided by a key change lift-off, ensures a fantastically rousing tune.
7. IF YOU CAN SEE ME
Bowiephiles will have much to pore over lyrically on this album – not least in deconstructing the identity enacted on this chaotically-charged slice of Lodger-recalling Pan African psychedelia.
8. I’D RATHER BE HIGH
“I’d rather be dead or out of my head” cries a battle-scarred soldier against monster metal riffs that recall Sabbath’s War Pigs and Zeppelin’s Achilles’ Last Stand.
The desert setting suggests contemporary conflict, the language of drugged abandon masterfully manipulated to address the scourge of war. A great song for squaddies everywhere.
9. BOSS OF ME
One of the first to recognise the songwriting talent of Bruce Springsteen, Bowie’s playful genius is at work here.
With Elson’s baritone once more to the fore, this is like a Clarence Clemons-era Boss song turned upside-down.
10. DANCING OUT IN SPACE
Peppy and easy to handle pop, although not as immediately striking or inspiring as what has gone before. File under filler.
11. HOW DOES THE GRASS GROW?
Even as Bowie fondly rekindles his earliest musical loves (sampling the riff from The Shadows’ 1960 hit Apache), he adopts the persona of a unforgiving inquisitor with some extraordinary crooning.
12. (YOU WILL) SET THE WORLD ON FIRE
Key Bowie influence Bob Dylan and his fellow Greenwich Village folk heroes David Van Ronk and Phil Ochs are all mentioned in this blistering tribute to the potency of the early 60s scene in Bowie’s adopted hometown. Earl Slick pours six-string gasoline on top.
13. YOU FEEL SO LONELY YOU COULD DIE
This is the album’s stand-out track, its title taken from Elvis Presley’s first hit, Heartbreak Hotel. The churning wrath and suicidal anguish of the lyric, the blazing string arrangement, massed chorus and a drop into Ziggy Stardust’s Five Years drum pattern befit a suitably awesome showdown between the Duke and the King.
The final track takes a magnificently unsettling left-field diversion. The stark portentous setting betrays the influence of Scott Walker, but Bowie’s fearsome brand of confession casts a spell only he can muster.
An all-conquering closer.
The thought of their own mortality does peculiar things to people. Often it makes elder statesmen release records such as Johnny Cash’s American Recordings suite – a final corpus of work that retroactively imparts all that came before with more gravitas.
In his seventh decade, David Bowie remains unlike all the other old dudes. Death stalks his 24th album – one crafted in secrecy redolent of the tomb. But it isn’t necessarily Bowie’s own death. The Next Day is packed with murderous tyrants, school massacres-to-be and snipers wishing they were dead. Its killer line has just a frisson of autobiography, from a singer whose work has rarely been self-referential, at least not in the mewling sense. “I stumble to the graveyard and I lay down by my parents,” Bowie sings on I’d Rather Be High, “Whisper: ‘Just remember, duckies, everybody gets got.'”
A heart attack truncated Bowie’s last tour back in 2004. Obituaries might well have been kept on standby thereafter as this once-dissolute pop star, one who had repurposed emaciation into a Romantic trope, became a near-recluse. Had Bowie’s final word been 2003’s serviceable Reality, his legacy as the British art-school pop star nonpareil would have retained its rude health. If there were one final single – Where Are We Now, say – its quavering tone and rheumy backwards glances at Bowie’s Berlin period would have made for a tidy coda. The Thin White Duke, after all, would have looked good in a convalescent day bed.
Instead we have The Next Day, a dense, angry, complex rock album. It’s priapic with saxophone and studded with riffs on old Bowie, rich with internal assonance (the vocal melody of Where Are We Now taken up by the guitar on Valentine’s Day) and many Davids singing (he’s like Scott Walker on the album’s closer, Heat). A week on from its debut on iTunes, it’s still hard to separate the quality of songs such as the excellent Dirty Boys from our collective need for this album to be a return to form, a scourge to those furred arteries, a bony two-fingered salute to the worms. If it is the mark of a satisfying album that you want to absorb every last note and reference, then The Next Day is a banquet, but one in which superfoods and gristle both feature.
Boss of Me sits ill here, from the ugly Americanism of its title to the lacklustre rock of its execution. If You Can See Me is, meanwhile, a drum’n’bass cut whose strangeness doesn’t overcome a 90s hangover. The verses of (You Will) Set the World on Fire are let down by its chorus. There are links backwards to Reality and 2002’s Heathen, most obviously Bowie’s desire to make statements about war, where in his pomp he just made up exotic and strange things.
But the tracks that bristle with guns – I’d Rather Be High, How Does the Grass Grow? – are rich and gory and recall (of all people) PJ Harvey. And if Bowie wants to cast celebrities as undead aliens, “sexless and unaroused”, preying on humanity, as he does on The Stars Are Out Tonight, then there are few stars who could do so with more authority.
Most satisfying of all, perhaps, is the swell of You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, which updates the Bowie of Rock’n’Roll Suicide. A bleak waltz that cries out for a lyric sheet, it’s the song that really nails the argument in favour of this late comeback, as vicious as it is bitter. Does he really sing, “I can see you as a corpse/Hanging from a beam”? Yes. Yes he does.
Earlier this year, someone in a position seemingly to know told me that David Bowie was on his deathbed, suffering from inoperable brain cancer. I passed this news on to a fellow Bowie fan, a friend with his ear to the ground in the music industry, who e-mailed back, “I’ve heard that too. I’ve also heard he’s A) dying from some mysterious virus; B) been incapacitated by a stroke; C) recovering from a near-fatal Catskills motorcycle accident. Probably not that last one, but who knows?”
A career spent courting otherworldliness, followed by a decade out of the public eye (and a 2004 heart attack), does tend to fuel morbid rumors. Fortunately, Bowie, at the age of 66, is perfectly healthy—or at least healthy enough to work, as only two days after I was assured he was drawing his last breath, his label announced he’d soon debut his first album of new songs in 10 years. The Next Day finally arrives this week, after a couple of videos and a pre-release stream on iTunes, and it’s quite good, too, although you should be wary of critics—even trustworthy me!—hailing twilight albums by classic-rock acts as “his best since Blood on the Tracks . . . or Band on the Run . . . or Graceland.”
One so wants one’s heroes to stick a final landing before the lights dim that it, perhaps, colors one’s judgment. So I won’t say this is Bowie’s best album since 1980’s Scary Monsters, which wouldn’t be true anyway, since his two most recent albums, 2002’s Heathen and 2003’s Reality, were also quite good. He’s been on a roll of late, albeit a slow one.
The trick for aging rock and pop stars is knowing when to stop chasing chart hits, when to relinquish a seat at the “cool kids” table and settle into making the best, most honest music one can. Bob Dylan righted his career in the early 90s with two albums of traditional songs and has since taken on grizzly old-timer status, writing and performing in a timeless, pan-roots style that encompasses folk, blues, R&B, early rock, and country.
At the opposite end of the Boomer spectrum, every new Rolling Stones album sounds like a mid-life crisis with the inevitable two or three stabs at a rewriting of “Start Me Up” (the priapism of which already felt canned back in 1981 when the song was released—and the band’s members were merely creeping up on 40).
Bowie spent much of the 1980s and 90s groping after the cutting edge. Of course, that was how he made his name in the 70s, too, borrowing shiny new sounds left and right with knowing panache. But where he used to run just ahead of the curve—pop’s sweet spot, as Madonna will also tell you—he lost a step or two as he aged. Nothing wrong with that; it happens to everyone sooner or later.
Bowie’s renaissance began at the dawn of the century when he reunited with Tony Visconti, his producer on many of his best 70s albums, and started making records that extended the dark, disjointed sound of great late-70s works such as “Heroes” and Lodger; for Bowie, this is what counts as roots music. He’ll never make a blues album and, ugh, who would want him to?
Visconti remains the producer on The Next Day, and the record’s packaging makes the connection with the earlier records explicit by repurposing the “Heroes” cover, with the old title crossed out and the new one splashed across a white, Post-It-like square that covers Bowie’s face—witty and self-conscious, Bowie at his best. His serial makeovers have prompted more bad rock criticism than any musician ever, with the exception of Dylan. The reason to listen to Bowie isn’t the posturing but his ability to write hooky, interesting, unobvious tunes that can bear repeated listening.
He does that on The Next Day, with several songs—“Valentine’s Day,” “I’d Rather Be High,” and “The Boss of Me” among them—that might have been minor hits in the late 70s or early 80s. (Nothing like a decade off to bank some memorable riffs and melodies.) It’s true that Bowie’s voice has thickened since we last heard him, but that might be a good thing, since it seems to limit the theatrical leaps and campy sobs that sometimes mar his vocals. This is vital, focused music. For a rock star in his seventh decade, that’s a wonder.
At 66, David Bowie is about eight years younger than Yeats was when he wrote “Politics.” If Bowie’s not old yet, he’s getting there, and “The Next Day” is his first album in 10 years. We’re told he made it because “today he definitely has something to say.” Since Bowie claims he will never give another interview, it’s up to us to ask, What is he trying to say? How well is he saying it? Are we obliged to care?
To answer those questions, we can compare “old Bowie” to the “young Bowie” who burst onto the scene with the hit single “Space Oddity,” in 1969, and went on to create the defining album of 1970s rock, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” But we may also wish to compare “old Bowie” to his fellow aging legends — “old Dylan,” “old Cash,” “old McCartney,” “old Jagger.”
“The Next Day,” after all, is filled with references to Bowie’s catalogue — there are sonic and lyrical echoes of everything from “Life on Mars” to “Heroes,” to “Let’s Dance” — but it also contains a song about celebrities and a Dylan tribute (one that’s arguably better than 1971’s “Song For Bob Dylan”) alongside the expected meditations on mortality and the follies of youth.
Let’s start with the first thing you’ll notice: Bowie’s voice isn’t what it used to be. It’s been decades since he’s been able to produce the giddy elastic yelp of “Hunky Dory” or “Ziggy Stardust,” but even the sexy growl familiar from “Let’s Dance” has crumbled a bit. At times, Bowie sounds ageless; other times, he sounds like what he is: a sexagenarian who hasn’t really toured since having a heart attack nine years ago.
Does it matter? Not really. Unlike the two Pauls (McCartney and Simon), Bowie cannot claim vocal immortality, but he’s got about as much left as Mick Jagger, whose throaty lower register disappeared somewhere along the way. “Old Bowie” isn’t afraid to reach for a high note, and he does a lot of shout-y belting, but he’s most successful when he settles into a comfortable range and lets the years show.
So what is he saying? For one thing, that he still lives in the same world as the rest of us. This isn’t Neil Young emerging from the cellar with a jar of moonshine or Bob Dylan visiting from some wagon train in the 1800s. Bowie is keenly aware of his own celebrity, but it’s not some foreign, alienating imposition: he worked hard to be this notorious.
In “Where Are We Now?,” he sings, over “Life on Mars”-y piano chords, “Had to get the train / from Potsdamer Platz / You never knew that I could do that / Just walk in the day.” Add the sight of Bowie tooling around Berlin on foot to his existing gallery of enduring images — the astronaut so awed by the beauty of Earth that he decides not to return (“Space Oddity”), the city dwellers struggling to digest the news of impending armageddon (“Five Years”), the kids listening to alien transmissions over the radio (“Starman”).
Notice anything about those indelible visions? They’re all sci-fi fantasies involving celestial bodies, aliens and the great beyond, and Bowie continues the tradition on “The Next Day.” “Dancing Out in Space” is a meaningless but bouncy number that would have sounded great between Blur and Pulp singles on a dance floor in 1997, and “The Stars Are Out Tonight” is a joke that’s funnier if you know how orbitally obsessed Bowie has always been: at first, you think the names he recites — “Brigitte, Jack and Kate and Brad” — must belong to little kids looking at the stars, until it becomes clear they are the stars, the celebrities, who “burn you with their radiant stares and trap you with their beautiful eyes.”
Bowie isn’t just taking the train with us; he’s ogling celebrities with us, too, never mind that he is — or was — one of the biggest around. On the title track, Bowie sings, “First they give you everything that you want / Then they take back everything you had.” Has Bowie had his A-list all-access pass revoked? Not likely, but after all these years of reclusiveness, it’s possible the invitations have begun to dry up.
You get the sense, from the music but also from this video with Tilda Swinton, that Bowie has ambivalent feelings about his distance from the cultural tide. There was a time when he defined it, followed by a long period when he tried but perhaps failed to steer it in more esoteric directions; now all he can do is remind us how much he did to shape it — and impart a few lessons to those traveling in his wake.
On “Love Is Lost,” which begins like an old Squeeze song before veering into darker terrain, he addresses what sounds like a 22-year-old fashion model suffering through her first heartbreak: “Your maid is new and your accent too, but your fear is as old as the world.” Listen to Bowie, kid — he’s been there! And on “I’d Rather Be High,” a poppy ode to youthful indifference that doubles as a sly anti-war anthem, he puts himself in the shoes of a truant soldier and sings, “I stumble to the graveyard / and I lay down by my parents / whisper, ‘Just remember, duckies, / everybody gets got.'”
Like so many aging artists before him, it seems, Bowie has learned the Big Lesson: no matter how much money you make, how many sex partners you corral, or even how many masterpieces you produce, we’re all riding a one-way conveyor belt into the furnace of oblivion. Does that mean everything we’ve done is meaningless? Not really, Bowie seems to suggest on “Where Are We Now?,” “as long as there’s sun / as long as there’s rain / as long as there’s fire / as long as there’s me / as long as there’s you.”
In 1994, Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin made “American Recordings.” Its message? Cash’s genius was a whole lot bigger than the Country Western genre that has encased it for too long. In 1997, Dylan made the Grammy-winning album “Time Out of Mind.” His message? I may sing like a dying toad, but my journey is far from over. In 2008, the Rolling Stones made the concert film “Shine a Light.” Their message? We may be old, but we can rock as hard as anybody, anywhere.
Now it’s 2013, and David Bowie has just released “The Next Day,” and I think I know what he’s trying to say: he’s still here, and he hasn’t given up on us yet. Or, to quote the seventh song on the album, “If you can see me, I can see you.”
CD » “I am a seer, I am a liar,” David Bowie intones on one of several doleful songs on “The Next Day.” No, he isn’t smiling. Instead, the chameleon androgyne, who has from the beginning worshipped the goddess of reinvention, takes his new set of riffs into somber territory. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of loud and rousing moments.
The title track rocks forth courtesy of a fine guitar hook. “I’d Rather Be High” moves jauntily toward a memorable, Beatlesque chorus. “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” is as propulsive as it is catchy. But somewhere between mentions of a sun-licked Nabokov, a gormless crowd and Mishima’s dog, a larger picture takes shape. Of the album’s mood, which is pensive.
Of its narrative, which is fragmented and gloomy. All of which makes “Next Day” at once familiar and inventive. Even while symbolically leaving the past behind (by superimposing the artwork of his new album over that of 1977’s “Heroes”), Bowie ventures back to Berlin, where “Heroes” was made. The nostalgia is partly existential: “Where Are We Now,” he asks on his affecting first single; “I don’t know who I am,” he sings on “Heat.” The lyrics traverse the falsities of love, celebrity worship, the effect of sharing the world with the masters of war.
Bowie’s voice is strong and nuanced throughout, whether conveying irony or disaffection or melancholy. The paradox is that even when his words are pessimistic, his music enlivens.
And so, one’s head nods as a baritone sax honks jazzily on “Dirty Boys,” which evokes those to-hell-with-it pleasures of youth.
And so, one’s feet stir from the first notes of “Dancing Out in Space.” Then, suddenly, it’s as if all of Bowie’s alien incarnations came back to life.