Review: David Bowie – The Next Day
Published on March 17th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
So much has been written about David Bowie’s new album The Next Day already that it feels a little intimidating attempting to add to it, so let’s bypass the long-winded intro and get straight to the music. After all, the album itself appeared suddenly out of…no, let’s not get suckered in.
The Next Day kicks off with its title track, a wonky old-school Bowie boogie the likes of which hadn’t been hinted at by either of the singles that preceded its release. That voice still carries plenty of character and exuberance even if it’s not quite capable of the theatrics of old, while there’s plenty worth highlighting within the lyrics: “Here I am, not quite dying” for starters, since rumours of Bowie’s imminent demise had been doing the rounds while he was secretly walled up in a recording studio. You could also isolate the phrase “women dressed as men” as a ‘nod’ to his past, but that would be to ignore the apparent tale of an errant priest that it’s embedded in.
“They scream my name aloud down into the well below” can’t help but elicit an amusing mental image of a group of people shouting “DAVID BOWIE!!” into a well, but that’s by the by. At this inopportune juncture, a word for the wibbly ascending lead guitar after the first chorus, for it is ace – as is the chorus, come to think of it, with yer man roaring “and the NEXT day, and the NEXT day, and ANOTHER day!” as if leading the most triumphant pirate’s drinking song ever sung. That theatrical side still shines through.
“Dirty Boys” could quite conceivably be the work of Nick Cave, even if it does go by a title that you’d believe to have already existed somewhere in Bowie’s back catalogue. The sax-assisted chorus is classic Bowie, though, and the urgency of the chorus (“When the sun is down and the die is cast / When the die is cast and you have no choice / We will run with Dirty Boys”) is supplemented by the aforementioned horn spazzing out magnificently while trading blows with screeching lead guitar.
On first listen, the lush, stringswept smart-pop of most recent single “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” seemed to confirm the sort of downtempo ‘latter day’ album that many might reasonably have expected, but in context it makes for a subtly effective pit stop amidst the relative craziness. “Your country’s new, your friends are new / Your house and even your eyes are new / Your maid is new, and your accent, too / But your fear is as old as the world” sings Bowie on “Love is Lost” with the wisdom that’s always been so becoming of him, especially when infused with such love as in “You know so much, it’s making me cry / You refuse to talk but you think like mad”.
“Love is Lost” is decidedly more ‘Berlin trilogy’ than, say, Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust, albeit it is subtler than most of anything off any of those albums. There are crunching guitars, a fizzy organ and some masterful moments of dissonance, all of which tees up the ensuing sophistication of first single “Where Are We Now?” and then “Valentine’s Day” with consummate showmanship. That the latter apparently concerns a high school shooter is rather unsettling, it has to be said, but then ‘a little unsettling’ has long been a Bowie hallmark.
For all the respective strengths of the tracks thus far, it’s the second half of The Next Day that elevates it to the realms of ‘great Bowie album’. The propulsive, soaring and downright strange “If You Can See Me” is perhaps the pick of the bunch, while also drawing attention to the abundance of uncharacteristic melodic simplicity across the record. In fact, each song up to this point bar “Where Are We Now?” and “Valentine’s Day” has featured at least a verse of what could be described as chanting, insomuch as the vocal melody doesn’t much deviate between two notes.
Basically, “If You Can See Me” is at once bloody brilliant and an explanation as to why this proliferation of chanting isn’t/wasn’t immediately obvious. The explanation is a simple one: there’s just too much cool stuff going on around it. Lyrically, “If You Can See Me” reads as if it’s also about a high school shooter, though we’d quite like there to be some other explanation. Musically, some might say that this is what Earthling should have sounded like, although Rocksucker would stick up for that particular much-maligned 1997 excursion into drum ‘n’ bass. People say he was following a trend but that’s to overlook the fresh perspective he cast on it, and now let’s get back to the Bowie album we’re supposed to be reviewing.
“I’d Rather Be High” is a divine form of brooding, psych-tinged jangle loaded with foreboding imagery: “The Thames was black, the tower dark / I flew to Cairo, find my regiment / City’s full of generals / And generals full of shit / I stumble to the graveyard and I lay down my parents / Whisper, ‘Just remember, duckies: everybody gets got'”. In fact, morbidity is always close at hand on The Next Day. On “How Does the Grass Grow?”, written with Jerry Lordan, we get the likes of “Remember the dead / They were so great / Some of them” and “Where do the boys lie / Mud mud mud / How does the grass grow / Blood blood blood” and furthermore “But I lived a blind life / A white face in prison / But you made a life out of nothing / Now I ride my black horse / I miss you more / Than you’ll ever ever know / Waiting with my red eyes / And my stone heart”.
You’d smell a murder ballad if you’d just read the title and those lyrics, but actually it’s a synth-propelled kind of Heroes/Aladdin Sane hybrid. In between “I’d Rather Be High” and “How Does the Grass Grow?” we get two of the more ‘unmistakably Bowie’ songs of the set, namely the sleazy, sludgy ’80s stomp of “Boss of Me”, written with Gerry Leonard, and the elated bouncing cyber-boogie of “Dancing Out in Space”. They’re both utterly brilliant.
“(You Will) Set the World on Fire” brings out the rock and roll riffery as one might bring out “the good china”, tempering its own cheesiness with lines like “Kennedy would kill the lines you’ve written” and “Cracks still at hell fly, screaming like a banshee”. It feels more like Bruce Springsteen than David Bowie, to be honest, but “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” gets The Next Day back on track with its impassioned, moonlit sway – note the presence of a second ‘Russian dolls’ lyrical motif with “Buildings crammed with people / Landscape filled with wrath “ and the continued morbidity of “I can see you as a corpse / Hanging from a beam”.
There’s also a ‘washy’ sort of monotone synth that continues into closing track “Heat”, the echo chamber splendour of which blossoms into quite the mini-epic. It’s lovely when the bass peeps over into sweet dissonance and then fluttery strings arrive and do similar. In what is definitely not the first mention of prison on the album, we are informed that “my father ran the prison”, while “and I tell myself I don’t know who I am” is bound to get folk all atwitter with comments like “ooh, that’ll be a ‘nod’ to his chameleonic past”. You see if it doesn’t.
Of the bonus tracks, “So She” is exquisite, the instrumental “Plan” pretty nice and “I’ll Take You There” more or less a subs bench “The Next Day”, at least until it comes to life somewhere around the middle eight. Overall, for the whole package…
Rocksucker says: Four and a Half Quails out of Five!
The Next Day is out now. For more information, please visit www.davidbowie.com