David Bowie: The Next Day
The world didn’t need another Bowie album. The man proved himself decades ago with his unbroken streak of 13 brilliant albums in 11 years, from Space Oddity, (1969), through Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), (1980). It’s a decade-long embarrassment of greatness unmatched by any post-Beatles/Stones-era artist. (There, I said it.) Bowie changed the very fabric of rock ‘n’ roll, dragging it kicking and screaming into the modern era, using theater, androgyny, experimental film techniques, obscure literary methods, anything he could get his hands on to push the medium along. From the folky “Wide Eyed Boy from Freecloud,” to the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am glam of Ziggy Stardust. From the cracked actor, Aladdin Sane, to the Thin White Duke to the golden boy of Let’s Dance, Bowie has always had something to say, the craft to get it across and the personae to grab eyeballs.
So, he made some terrible music from 1984-2003. He tried to start a band (Tin Machine), lost all sense of judgement when it came to musicians, styles, sounds, visuals. The man who was always steps ahead finally, well, fell to earth. It wasn’t his time anymore. I mean, I sat through the Glass Spider tour, and it was even worse than the legendarily bad reviews describe.
The world didn’t need another Bowie album, but here it is. The Next Day seems to have materialized out of the ether, with no advance hype, kept secret for two years by Bowie’s longtime producer, Tony Visconti. When the mournful first single, “Where Are We Now?” dropped, its modesty felt like a revolution. Bowie sounded like a man at peace with his legacy, finally able to look back without restlessly undermining his gift as a songwriter. When Visconti claimed that the tune wasn’t representative of the album, it was worrisome. Would we be subjected to more blandly competent musicianship, dated keyboard sounds and cheesy electric guitar? The second single alleviates some of those fears. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is a confident mid-tempo rocker, borrowing a bit of the loping groove of “China Girl.” Throughout the album, there are scattered references to Bowie’s earlier work. The drumbeat from “Five Years” is tacked on to the tail end of “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” and some “Space Oddity” strummed acoustic guitar is on the eerie album closer, “Heat.” It’s as if Bowie’s compulsive need to embody the future has finally been resolved. He’ll never be a pioneer again and he’s ok with that, which gives him license to playfully quote himself in a way that feels new.
Bowie does his due diligence of attempted envelope-pushing, like the oddly metered “If You Can See Me,” and “Dancing Out In Space,” which recalls the warped pop dissonance of Lodger. But the best stuff here is the stuff that sounds, well, like Bowie. Hearing him sing his trademark, trashy, doo-wop background vocal ooh’s and sha-la-la-la’s on “Valentine’s Day” is worth the price of admission alone.
There are a bunch of really good songs on The Next Day, but a track-by-track assessment would only miss the point, which is that Bowie sounds engaged for the first time in 20 years. There’s passion in his voice, visions of apocalypse in his head and that same spiky, darkly comic sensibility we’d all learned to live without, dipping into his catalog to get our fix. To learn now that we may have that voice around for a while, or even just this once, is a fucking blessing.