David Bowie - The Next Day

by Rich Morris Rating:8 Release Date:2013-03-11

Timing is everything in showbiz, as the former David Jones knows only too well. Having released a debut album full of wry, effete chamber-pop ditties on the same day The Beatles changed the rock rule-book forever with Sgt Pepper, he went on to define the 70s, staying furiously yet somehow effortlessly ahead of every trend going, ensuing that, while he spent most of the 80s as a bit of a joke, everyone else spent it catching up with David Bowie.

 

Timing remains of paramount importance in the life and career of David Bowie. Its cruel passing and ironic reveals have been a key subject for his songwriting since 'Changes'. Sometimes, though, the timing of things must just make him either laugh or cry. Example: It's 1989 and you release an album of straight-ahead hard rock played by a small but trusted unit of seasoned musicians. You call it Tin Machine, because that's the name of the band you happen to be in at the time. Result: Said album quickly comes to be derided as the biggest folly of your career, worse even than that tour with the giant spider or the time you bum-wiggled for charity with Mick Jagger.

 

Example Two: It's 2013 and, after 10 years of near-total silence, you release a new track through your website on your birthday, taking the world and his Diamond Dog completely by surprise. The song itself, 'Where Are We Now?', is a heartbreaking mediation of loss and (what else?) the passing of time, leading many to suspect your new album will follow suit. But no - instead you blind-side everyone again with a collection of straight-ahead hard rock songs played by a small but trusted unit of seasoned musicians. You call it The Next Day. Result: Everyone falls to the ground, crying and shitting themselves in blissful rapture because YOU'RE DAVID FREAKIN' BOWIE, DAMMIT, AND YOU HAVE RETURNED!

 

You suspect Bowie must have a healthy distrust of critics by now. Some parts of The Next Day definitely have more than a smidge of Tin Machine II about them. If you haven't heard that record, and not many have, you should track down a copy because it's actually pretty good (except for the bits Bowie didn't write, which are God-awful).

 

The Next Day is also, more than any Bowie album before it, a collection of character studies. Bowie is renowned, of course, for inventing personae to reveal something about himself or his audience, but here he switches from one character to the next in a precise, writerly manner, skipping between locations and time periods in a way which suggests there could be some unifying theme, if only one could work it all out.

 

The album begins in a thoroughly belligerent mood, and stays that way for most of its duration. The title track is a narky mule-kick to the nuts with lyrics inspired by Medieval English history and spat-out lines about a "purple-headed priest" (naughty Bowie). By the time you get to the gut-punching chorus of "Here I am/ not quite dying/ My body left to rot in a hollow tree", well, you have to take your hat off the old dame: He's back, he's still the guv'nor, and that's all there is to it.

 

To cement the fact, the following two tracks are also excellent. 'Dirty Boys' lolls drunkenly around on a sax-and-guitar-grumble rhythm straight off Iggy Pop's The Idiot. The lyrics sound like an Edwardian gentlemen's club take on a typical Suede trope: "I will buy you a feather hat/ I will steal a cricket bat/ Smash some windows, make a noise/ We will run with dirty boys." It's short, insinuating, fabulously cranky and has a fucking great sax solo at the end.

 

'The Stars (Are Out Tonight)', meanwhile, may already be familiar to you thanks to its brilliant video starring Tilda Swinton as Low-era Bowie. A dark, malevolent blues rumble heightened by orchestral flourishes, it's possibly the strongest track here. The lyrics concern themselves with modern society's obsession with stardom, which would be boring coming from anyone else. From a man who's lived in the white heat of fame ever since the 70s, who did a lot to define the modern self-making star system, and who couldn't escape even when he wanted to, it's pretty fascinating, not least because Bowie's pulling no punches here. We get mentions of "Jack and Kate and Brad", glimpsed from behind their tinted limo windows like "blackened sunshine".

 

This feels like David Lynch territory; beneath a serenely sunny Hollywood facade something icky squirms, a twilight world of "satyrs and their child-wives" who are "sexless and unaroused". It's spine-tingling stuff, causing the listener to lean in and try to catch more words, like gossip-hounds overhearing a juicy story. It also puts one in mind of Bowie's own period spent trapped in Hollywood hell; a dissolute existence of black magic paranoia and gargantuan coke binges which he only escaped by dragging his ragged muse and Iggy Pop to Berlin.

 

The following 'Love is Lost' slows the pace a little while still managing to rock like an angry bastard. Lyrically, it's of a piece with the preceding song, only this time Bowie has focussed in on one woman. He sings: "Your house and even your eyes are new/ Your maid is new and your accent too/ but your fear is as old as the hills". Again, one thinks of Bowie the changeling, the artist who willingly discarded his past-selves, his friends and family, to become the brightest star in the heavens. Does he regret this? And then, as if jump-cutting between the decades, 'Where Are We Now?' comes weeping into view. It's the album's only really fragile, vulnerable moment, and somehow feels more sad with each listen. A whole album of this would have been almost unbearable.

 

After this, 'Valentine's Day' marks an abrupt lightening of mood. Bowie sounds like he's actually almost carefree as he dusts off his fey Ziggy voice to sing over some skipping, doo-woppy rock 'n' roll. It's a lovely moment and should definitely be a single. Then you listen to the lyrics and realise Bowie's singing to us about a boy who dreams of mowing down his peers in a haze of gunfire. Wow. It should definitely be a single.

 

Then comes another dramatic shift: the skittish, frankly unhinged-sounding 'If You Can See Me' begins with a soulful wail (which I'm guessing comes from long-term bassist Gail Ann Dorsey) before lurching all over the place while Bowie declaims with a silly 'alien'-effect on his voice. It's the closest this record gets to reviving his experimental, genre-hopping 90s output (which is often mocked, mainly by idiots who haven't bothered listening to the albums themselves). And what to make of lines like, "I will take your lands and all that lays beneath... I will slaughter your kinds who descend in belief"? It sounds like the murdered but somehow still conscious protagonist of the title track has returned to wreak his revenge on the villagers who killed him.

 

'I'd Rather Be High' is melodic and moving, probably one of the best lyrics Bowie has ever written. Over a tongue-in-cheek, trippy guitar-line, Bowie sings from the point-of-view of a 17-year-old soldier being flown out to Cairo, telling us: "I'd rather be high/ I'd rather be fly". In a song studded with details, he tells us how he's doomed to follow orders from "generals full of shit". The great lines keep coming: "I stumbled to the graveyard and I lay down by my parents/ whisper, 'Just remember, duckies, everybody gets done" is one, as is "I'm 17, my looks can prove it/ I'm so afraid that I might lose it/ I'd rather smoke and phone my ex/ Be pleading for some teenage sex - yeah!" It's the most thoroughly human song Bowie has written since 'Soul Love', and a return to the bittersweet, tragicomic character studies he began his career with.

 

'Boss of Me' is a Pixies-esque smouldering rocker in which the singer acknowledges the supremacy of the woman in his life. Could it be about his wife Iman's alleged protectiveness of her family from the media? Probably not; it's hard to imagine Bowie calling the former super-model and humanitarian campaigner a "small-town girl". However, this is one song where Bowie sounds totally content, with no shadows lurking in the background.

 

The following 'Dancing Out in Space' is the album's most throwaway moment, apparently self-consciously so. It's a slightly daffy, quite loveable 80s-dancing romp with some lovely synth sounds thrown in. After this lighthearted moment, the album sags a little. Both 'How Does the Grass Grow?' and '(You Will) Set the World on Fire' are a little Bowie-by-numbers, although after 10 years with no new material it feels churlish to gripe about that, and both boast sprightly tunes.

 

The former, like Earthling's 'Battle for Britain (The Letter)', seems to revolve around a soldier's letter to a loved one. The hard-rocking '(You Will) Set the World on Fire', meanwhile, appears to concern a folk singer in 60s Greenwich Village. Kennedy is mentioned, as are a "Joan" and a "Bobby", so maybe we can assume this is a belated sequel to Hunky Dory's 'Bob Dylan'. The penultimate track, 'You Feel So Lonely You Could Die', is a full-on glam-era sci-fi ballad, with a dramatic string arrangement just like dear old Mick Ronson used to write. Its Rocky Horror refrain is pretty irresistible, and its lyrics about sexual jealously and intimations of violence are intriguing, although you suspect this is the kind of thing Bowie could have turned out at any point in the last 10 years.

 

As on his previous two albums, Heathen and Reality, The Next Day sidesteps a conventional farewell to finish with a tense evocation of doubt and menace. The big surprise here is hearing Bowie sing about his father, although, of course, we can't assume Bowie is singing about his actual pater familias. But then, what to make of lyrics such as: "My father ran the prison/ I can only love you by hating him more"? Frankly, I have no clue, but it makes for an electrifying, chilling end to the album.

 

So that's your lot, for now at least (producer Tony Visconti has hinted that there are enough unused songs for another album). Some people might be a little disappointed on first listen. The Next Day is very much of a piece with Reality, itself a tight rock album with some synthy flourishes. There's been no grand reinvention of the kind Bowie used to be known for. Instead, it's clear this album's author wanted to make it because he knew he had some great songs and, if The Next Day is about anything, it's about great songwriting, thoughtful, well-observed lyrics and the power of skilled musicians having a blast. That's where Bowie's at in 2013, it seems, and that's just dandy.

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