David Bowie - The Next Day
We live closer to the earth, never to the heavens”
‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’
He knew. He knew all along. Bastard. What were we thinking? Suckered into the grand plan. Skewered by our own piddling doubts. Swept along by a decade’s worth of misunderstanding and, now that all is revealed, the most devilish misdirection. What was that? You gotta have what? Ah, faith. But faith succumbs to doubt. Faith comes at a price, and the currency we assign to even legends starts to weaken. The humdrum smothers the beauty and vagaries of the foolish luxury of art. As markets tumble and crash, grand masters go missing in (in)action. If you had Googled “David Bowie“ prior to January 8th 2013, the old dame’s 66th birthday, the day he pulled the rug with the devastating comeback single ‘Where Are We Now?’, auto-complete would have offered you all manner of statistically unsound but unavoidably compelling suffixes: “David Bowie ill health”, “David Bowie recluse” and, most unpalatable of all, “David Bowie dying.”
As Britain basked in the Summer glow of its Olympic spectacle, clamour grew for Bowie to fill a, well, Bowie-sized gap on an uncomfortably thin closing ceremony bill. He didn’t show. (Danny Boyle later confirmed he had been asked.) So, we lowered expectations and settled for a reformed Spice Girls, the ubiquitous and eager-to-please Macca and the latest incarnation of Brit pop duo The Who. The UK's pop legacy seemed all of a sudden unpalatably threadbare and workmanlike. Bowie, the chameleon whose de-bunking of his psycho space alien legacy saw him re-invented in the 80’s as a sharp-suited soul crooner, happily took his Let’s Dance persona to Wembley for Live Aid. Surely, a quarter century later, he wouldn’t be able to resist a call to light up the greatest show since that landmark day? Where was he? More importantly, what was he doing?
This is what he was doing. In fact, as producer Tony Visconti and various band members have since confirmed, he’s been doing it on and off since 2011. My oh my. Ten years have passed since Reality, his last studio album, a respectable but non-earth-shattering set. Hardly any time at all, but enough for the means of distribution to change beyond recognition, for an explosion of social media to re-write how we interact with the world and more than enough time for the record industry to lapse into its death throes. So what does Bowie do? Embrace the new? Kowtow to ‘progress’? Nah. Contrary to the last, he takes one look at the multitude of opportunities for cheap self-promotion, stomps on the loudhailer of commerce and records his new album in secret. For good measure, he releases the comeback single with nary a whisper. All of a sudden, the rules are no longer rules. A whisper becomes a scream. The world shakes, sits up, scratches its head. He’s back?
Recording an album behind everyone's back is no big shakes, of course, if you’re the latest half-assed wunderkind. There’ll be another along in a minute. But when you’ve gradually become the most revered, most missed artist in Western pop, it’s the ultimate staging of art and illusion. It’s such a demonstration of arch subterfuge, this from the man who would toss off the most féted entries in his canon on an annual basis, you don’t know whether to brand him jackal or jester. And because he’s seemingly seeing the whole enterprise through and staying in (his latest) character by not talking, there’s every chance we’ll never know what he was thinking. Another shot of enigma, anyone? Make mine a double.
Let us acknowledge the blindingly obvious first: if The Next Day had been released in 2005 and, therefore, simply kept pace with the release schedule of his (solid, under-appreciated but rarely magical) 90s work, we wouldn’t be where we are now. Context is everything. Nothing means anything anymore without something in the foreground providing a sense of scale. Context fills the void. But rarely for Bowie. He is the void. No-one chances upon a well-worn copy of Hunky Dory and snorts: “Well it’s not bad but if only he’d...” It’s unlikely that any commentator would ever dare perform the ultimate critical reverse twist back-flip and chip away at the legacy of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars by fingering its faults, highlighting its filler, lampooning its lyrics or revealing who it ripped off. When your golden years have been defined by a largely aloof ignorance of the opposition, been more about the creation of your own startling sub-genres, you earn the right to be judged on your own merits. Thus, The Next Day is not as ‘good’ as much of the back catalogue. Of course. And it’s too early, perhaps, to pitch it against much of the more recent stuff. But on its own terms, distinct from the monoliths it follows, it's a success of some magnitude. Plus, aided by its compelling provenance, it becomes more ‘important’ than a fistful of its predecessors.
Crucially, The Next Day avoids the pitfalls and, thus, the brickbats. Thank God it doesn’t shimmy up to The New. There was a time when a younger Bowie would have taken note of, say, dubstep and had a go himself. (Maybe he, um, did and we forgave him. Who knows? Can’t remember.) Nah. The Next Day is a defiantly singular work. It has no truck with anything other than itself. Which is good because there’s hope and expectation. There’s the rumbling impatience of a generation for whom the masterworks have started to take on a deeper resonance late in the day. Or maybe it’s just that fondness flickers brighter as the light dims. That’s why, perhaps, the ‘okay’ stuff sounds, actually, more okay than it ever had any right to. And, all things considered, in the age of the undignified comeback, wouldn’t it be cool just to have him back?
So. Is it, you know, any good?
That would be a yes.
There’s nothing new here. Be clear about that. Because, lest you forget, he’s 66. (No pop stars are that old. Not even Dave Grohl. Not even Jake Bugg.) But it’s a blast, so for that be grateful. It’s never boring, which is an achievement in itself. It mostly rocks, a sign that advancing years give rise to something other than reflection. There are no distracting/embarrassing collaborations or duets with youthful hip cats. He doesn’t rap. Or employ an orchestra. Or try for a hit. Or court controversy. And, when it does reflect, it does so with a clear-eyed hunger, proof positive that that sharp intellect is alive and roaming. It taps into the history with zeal and integrity. It adds to the legacy.
“Here I am, not quite dying” intones Bowie on the opening title track. It’s a brash, 4/4 throb, a throwback to the pulsing thrum of, say, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or ‘Black Out’ from Heroes. Indeed, much of The Next Day is cut from the same cloth, idiosyncratic enough to match spiralling, almost trad guitar with spare, bolstered beats; uncompromising enough to stop just short of spinning out a sweet hook. Much has been made of the aching ‘Where Are We Now?’ and its world weary contemplation, its references to Berlin and, Bowie’s most experimental period. But, despite the jaw-dropping chutzpah of its cover design, the continuing influence of the Berlin ‘trilogy’ is limited here. Minus the lengthy instrumentals, jarring electro sheen and conceptualism of much of that time, Bowie’s latest incarnation is clear-headed and accessible.
He stops short of posturing on ‘I’d Rather Be High’, the album’s most blatantly observational moment: “I’d rather be dead or out of my head, than training these guns on the men in the sand.” Elsewhere, he’s similarly, oddly prosaic. The slamming funk groove of ‘Boss of Me’ (“Who’d have every thought of it, who’d have ever dreamed / That a small town girl like you, would be the boss of me” ) is simply too straight to not have a hidden edge. But, by and large, the biggest thrills come when the music fractures a little and the words edge out of reach. 'Dirty Boys' shuffles on on awkward off beat; a baritone sax further unsettles. But it's redeemed by a killer hook and Bowie conjuring wild portents: "When the sun goes down, when the sun goes down and the die is cast..." As ever, the words convince more through shape and arrangement than strict narrative.
‘Love is Lost’ is emphatic, over-dramatised spectacle. It, too, has a Heroes-like heft and Bowie simultaneously implores and castigates: “Oh what have you done? Oh what have you done? / You know so much it’s making you cry.” ‘Dancing Out in Space’ steals the beat from ‘Lust For Life’, the first of several references to the back catalogue. ‘How Does the Grass Grow’ is high on tradition (how the Frankie Valli “aye aye aye”s work, God only knows, but they just do) but higher still on dark introspection: “The light in my life burns away, there will be no tomorrow.” (A highlight, it recalls the sleek, white soul lines of ‘TVC15’. )
So, The Next Day starts well, finishes spectacularly. There’s ‘You Feel So Lonely (You Could Die)’, a noir Stax flourish that dices with drama and intrigue (“I could see you as a corpse hanging from a tree / I could read you like a book”) and then teases with a coda that will have the hardcore nodding, grinning, punching the air. The closing ‘Heat’ is immense, and thrillingly abandons convention in favour of a charred, metallic buzz, a sprawling, tuneless fug where Bowie drifts wraith-like: “I don’t know who I am...my father ran the prison, my father ran the prison...” Like much of The Next Day, indeed, like much of the previous forty years, fact yields to fiction. Or so it would seem. With Bowie, it’s not always easy to tell. But one thing is clear. With Bowie, it’s always the ridiculous that speaks loudest, makes the most sense, keeps the muse aflame. Too much understanding might keep us earthbound. As ever, he doesn’t know who he is. Neither do we. Did we ever? Still, just when we were starting to think it might be over, it’s not over. It’s far from over. “As long as there’s you, as long as there’s me...” Co-dependency on this scale can’t possibly end well. See you on the other side.