No one could’ve reasonably predicted that we’d be treated to a new David Bowie album in the early days of 2013.
Following a heart attack that truncated the last leg of his 2004 “Reality” tour, Bowie all but disappeared into what we imagined to be convalescent domesticity with wife Iman and the couple’s child. He popped up only periodically in the music press, and then only in papparazzi’s flash-and-run pics, most of which depicted him pushing a stroller through a Manhattan park or emerging unawares from a store with the shopping tucked beneath each arm.
Bowie was done, we assumed, and though popular music missed and needed him, who could fault the man? He’d given so much, influenced pop the way Miles Davis influenced jazz, which is to say immensely, repeatedly and defiantly, and released somewhere in the area of a dozen long-playing masterpieces, and as many near-masterpieces. So, thanks for the memories, then.
The only problem for scribes sitting on their prewritten copies of Bowie’s obituary emerged on the man’s 66th birthday in early January, in the form of the single “Where Are We Now,” and with it, the announcement that a new album would be dropped on the unsuspecting public in early March. It turns out Bowie had been crafting “The Next Day,” out today, for several years, in airtight, nondisclosure agreement-bound secrecy. Oh, and he’d been working on the thing with his old friend Tony Visconti, – veteran of Bowie gems “Low, “Lodger,” “Heroes” and “Scary Monsters,” among others – in the producer’s chair.
Needless to say, many people who do what I do for a living flipped out, revealing in the process how badly we wanted – perhaps even needed – Bowie’s return to be a brilliant one. As if, by cheating death and retaining his genius, he’d shave a few years off our own ages in the process. Such desire can make retaining objectivity tough, but as it turns out, “The Next Day” is a demanding enough listen to require full immersion and the abandonment of such wishful, wistful notions.
It’s a worm-infested album presided over by a wicked ringmaster who stomps through the graveyard, juggling human skulls, and giddily squawking “Nevermore.” And if it isn’t quite the flawless masterwork that is “Low” or “Scary Monsters,” it comes damn close.
As any reflective artist of his age would necessarily be, Bowie is reflecting on mortality here, though he manages to do so without being morose. In fact, with the exception of the beautiful, if regret-tinged ballad “Where Are We Now,” Bowie doesn’t seem to be as concerned with his own death as he does with death in general. That’s in keeping with Bowie’s consistent refusal to bow to the pop-critical hegemony which demands that singer-songwriters pen autobiographical lyrics in order to be deemed “authentic.” Bowie’s greatest gift to us, in my estimation, has always been his ability to fly in the face of such an oppressive notion, and to rightly prize imagination over such cloying conceptions of “authenticity.”
The album opens with its title tune, which paints a rather vivid portrait of a society on the brink of collapse atop a nervous sonic assault that suggests a present-day updating of, say, “Red Sails,” from “Lodger.” An ominous baritone sax lurks in the shadows of “Dirty Boys,” which recalls the scruffy street gangs that populated the “Diamond Dogs” album, strange homoerotic imagery cropping up amid the implied violence. It’s cryptic, fascinating, edgy stuff.
“The Stars Are Out Tonight” offers the idea that the glam gods and goddesses of Hollywood and pop might in fact be aliens sent to suck the personal volition from us like marrow from our bones. That it also boasts a relentless melodic flow and a breathless pace makes it a vertigo-inducing nightmare of a pop tune.
So, 10 minutes in, we’ve got murder, violence, a ragged dystopia, aliens and alienation. Oh, what fun!
Ah, but the existential angst is not ready to take a curtain call quite yet. “Valentine’s Day” boasts a giddy, sugar sweet hook, but tells the tale of a would-be tyrant aiming to bend the world to his will. “If You Can See Me” recalls the terrifying claustrophobia of the “1. Outside” album, as Bowie sings with the sinister glee of Big Brother himself. “How Does the Grass Grow?” takes us on a romp through a blood-soaked field, as if offering commentary on the doings of the narrator of “I’d Rather Be High,” who seems to be a trained military assassin seeking reprieve through drugs and, as Bowie lecherously interjects in double-tracked bliss, “teenage sex.”
All of this builds in a far from accidental manner toward “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” and “Heat.” The former reprises the dramatic grandeur of the “Diamond Dogs” weeper “When You Rock and Roll With Me,” while the latter finds Bowie in his most beautiful Scott Walker-inspired croon, as Gail Ann Dorsey’s lilting fretless bass offers able support. The two songs provide the disturbing album with a stirring coda and a bit of shelter from the storm Bowie has spent the earlier parts of the album conjuring. This is simply masterful record-making.
He’s back, then, and still throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.
“The Next Day”
4 stars out of 4