'The Next Day' - the day after
Posted on Saturday, 2 March 2013 | No Comments
Of all the albums people were hoping to see in 2013, new material from David Bowie was pretty low down the list. After a heart attack in 2004 while touring his pretty-good Reality album, Bowie seemed to have gone into unofficial retirement, with very few public appearances and no new recordings in sight. Yet here we are: recorded in secrecy over the last two years, The Next Day is here to remind us that when it comes to Bowie, you can never really predict his next move.
Although slated for release on on 11th March over here, he used (but of course) St. David's Day to stream the full album and give us all yet another welcome surprise - and, presumably, manage to head off any leaks as well. And so here we are, the day after The Next Day, in a world where Bowie is once again back at work.
Heathen and Reality, his two records in the prior decade, were both strong if slighty unadventerous efforts that won back many a fan and critic who had been left bemused by his sporadically brilliant but sometimes just plain baffling spree of genre experiments and identity crisies in the nineties. What would a Bowie album for the new decade bring? On initial impressions, it's one that often hews to the classicism of Heathen and Reality, but one that also brings a far fiercer energy to proceedings and isn't afraid to throw a few curveballs into the mix.
Initial single Where Are We Now? was a graceful elegy to the Berlin days, a track that (along with the brilliantly self-referential and daft cover art) suggested that this might be the album where the mask slipped and we finally saw the 'real' Bowie - whatever on earth that might be. Guess what? No such luck - The Next Day is packed full of character-piece songs, a carefully sculpted art-rock album that probes the psyche of the powerful and the adored, be they dictators, warmongers or celebrities. While the approach might be slightly more mannered than earlier work (and the lifestyle, thankfully, far healthier than his mid/late 70's heyday), there's no danger of a Rick Rubin makeover or serious, 'worthy' covers of songs about dying to win over the Q crowd. Bowie does as Bowie does, and thank fuck for that.
"Here I am, not quite dying..." he roars on the opening title track - a roar of fractured guitars and soaring synths that sounds like early Talking Heads beaten to submission, smart but with plenty of muscle to spare. Hollered from the perspective of a disposed despot, it proves that the lay-off certainly hasn't affected Bowie's vocals one iota. Indeed, the album finds him having more fun with his vocals than he's had in decades, from the greasy snarl of the brilliant, sax-driven prowl of Dirty Boys (a song far, far better than the title would let on) to the pitch-shifted, lavicious delirium of mid-album highpoint If You Can See Me. Whether Bowie ever plays live or not is still very much up in the air, but the album is performed with the steel and charisma needed to shake the masses: it's the brawn of his crack band of musicians (a tip of the hat to bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, guitarists Gerry Leonard and Earl Slick and producer Toni Visconti for finding the sweet spot between the shiny and the raw throughout) and the passion that Bowie throws into each of these sketches that makes the album such a consistent listen throughout its fourteen songs.
As the album progresses, it reaches out from the power plays of Morrissey-esque rocker The Stars (Are Out Tonight), which recently received a delightful, Tilda Swinton-featuring video and the dramatic Love Is Lost through to earthier ground like the "small town girl" dominating the narrator of Boss of Me - a track that suggests, some twenty-plus years too late, Bowie has belatedly figured out how to write a good Tin Machine song - and the Apache-referencing How Does The Grass Grow? Any concerns that the album might be coming to a slightly homogeneous end are, thankfully, blown away by the dramatic, surprising duo that rounds out the record.
Much has been made perviously of the Scott Walker/David Bowie love-in, an infatuation that's let to Bowie covering Walker's beloved Jacques Brel and sometimes cribbing a fair few production ideas from him (just compare the multi-tracked vocals on Walker's Nite Flight tracks like Shut Out to Lodger's Look Back in Anger) and which, pleasingly, isn't just one way. But here, the influence is the most prevalent it's ever been. Not just in the admirable restraint when it comes to release schedules, the time spent on honing lyrics and arrangements into pristine gems (seriously, these are some of the best lyrics of Bowie's entire career on this thing), but in the final duo that represent Scott old and new.
You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is a dramatic, lush ballad, stuffed full of soaring strings, marching drums and archly desparing vocals that sounds like a 21st century update of theclassic series of the Scott 1-4 LPs. As both a break from the constant guitar chug of the album's second half, and as a perfect climax to the record it's a delight, with a reference to Ziggy Stardust classic Five Years at the end that brings Bowie's career perfectly full circle. If he wanted to sign off here, well, it'd be a nice neat package. But this is Bowie we're talking here - don't expect it to be so easy. And so, the album instead ends with Heat, a remarkably bold final step whose oblique poetry, spacious arrangement and tormented croon bears the scars of Scott's Tilt-era work. It's a stunning track, and suggests that if he is to side-step the touring circuit from now on, the mantle of studio-bound auteur that Scott's late career has worked within might prove to be the final great re-invention for the Great Dame. If nothing else, it's certainly a far better look on him than his recent NME cover.
So what is The Next Day then? For the most part, it sees Bowie in full-on rock mode, suggestive perhaps of the more full-on moments of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). The energy and delivery here shames artists a half or even a third of his age, and the content beneath the veneer delights as well. The sprinkling of surprises - Where Are We Now?, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, Heat - prove that's plenty more oddball late Bowie moments from where Bring Me the Disco King sprung. Most of all, it's a record that should by rights have been an epitath, a final bow from one of British music's greatest icons that, remarkably, might just be a rebirth. This isn't just a strong album - this is strong by Bowie album standards. It'd be foolhardy to go in expecting another Low, but it's hard to imagine how any Bowie fan could honestly be anything other than delighted with this.
And really, that controversial, much-parodied (by myself and many others) cover art sums it up perfectly. There's no resting on laurels or playing on past glories on The Next Day, which only looks back to make way for the new. That great big white square covering up the "Heroes" cover? That's the space he's now carved out for whatever this next act in his long, winding career might bring.