Welcome to today’s special review of David Bowie’s twenty-fourth studio album and first in ten years, The Next Day. As you likely know, The Second Disc rarely reviews newly-recorded albums, but the return of this iconic artist to the recording studio simply couldn’t be ignored.
In 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes,” David Bowie famously revealed “Major Tom’s a junkie, strung out in heavens high, hitting an all-time low.” This continuation of the story begun in 1969’s “Space Oddity” was as definitive a statement as any on the man’s unsentimental, decidedly not rose-colored view of the past. So it was a surprise when, on his 66th birthday, Bowie announced his first album in ten years and offered “Where Are We Now” to the world. A somber, elegiac and darkly lovely rumination through the streets of Berlin as delivered by an older, wiser man, “Where Are We Now” signaled an elder statesman in a mournful, soul-searching state of near-tranquility: “As long as there’s sun/As long as there’s rain/As long as there’s fire/As long as there’s me/As long as there’s you.” Meeting expectations, though, via the art of defying them (always a specialty of Bowie’s), the artist has both invoked and laid to rest the ghosts of Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke with a searing collection of original songs that conclusively prove age hasn’t mellowed David Bowie. Indeed, “Where Are We Now” was the calm before the storm. The Next Day is an angry, electric exploration of where he is now, where he was then, and where he will likely be “The Next Day.”
Joined by co-producer Tony Visconti (The Man Who Sold the World, Scary Monsters, Heathen) and a trusted band including guitarists Earl Slick, Gerry Leonard, and David Torn, bassists Gail Ann Dorsey and Tony Levin, drummers Zachary Alford and Sterling Campbell, and saxophonist Steve Elson, Bowie seems liberated to pursue his muse via a host of characters ravaged by violence, war and a pervasive celebrity culture. The album is enveloped in darkness with only brief flashes of light, yet it’s the work of a man who’s been hiding in plain sight on the New York streets over the past decade, enjoying his “retirement.” Studio photographs of the Next Day sessions show a fit, trim and smiling Bowie enjoying the art of creation. The arc of the album from this deliciously contradictory artist, though, is anything but placid. Occasional hints of Ziggy Stardust, Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane and Lodger cede to lively, dense, alternately crisp and clattering soundscapes.
We take a tour of The Next Day after the jump!
Announcing the relentless album opener “The Next Day,” Bowie brays, “Here I am, not quite dying/My body left to rot in a hollow tree!” We’re immediately transported to a doomed world of torture, disease and a “purple-headed priest,” with no salvation anywhere in sight for “the next day, and the next, and another day…” Malevolent, metallic guitars stake their claim as Bowie theatrically asserts of those populating the song, “They know God exists because the Devil told them so.” It’s the Orwellian dystopia of Diamond Dogs taken to the next level. It’s not long, though, before Bowie roots The Next Day squarely in the here and now.
“(The Stars) Are Out Tonight” is a surreal, nightmarish, and weirdly catchy fantasia. The meditation on stars, both of the celestial and celebrity variety, is an ironic comment from one of the biggest stars of all time, set to a full-bodied, anthemic rock melody. These stars “burn you with their radiant smiles, trap you with their beautiful eyes/They’re broke and shamed or drunk or scared,” Bowie seethes, mockingly (?) adding, “But I hope they live forever.” He’s never sounded more confident, but he’s still at a remove, distantly detached as three guitars, bass, drums, alto sax, contrabass clarinet, strings and even recorder all contribute to a mightily captivating production.
An unsettling pulse marks “Love is Lost,” but that song is mere prelude for the subtly sinister “Valentine’s Day.” Set to an inviting melody, both swaggering and muscular, “Valentine’s Day” appears to be a glimpse into the mind of a teenager poised to take action in an eerily familiar scenario: “The rhythm of the crowd…Teddy and Judy down…Valentine sees it all” and “Valentine told me how he’d feel/If all the world were under his heel/Or stumbling through the mall…” It’s frightening, subversive and all too timely.
Simple squares, or boxes, are all over the artwork for The Next Day, both on the controversial Heroes-obscuring cover and throughout the foldout booklet. But Bowie doesn’t allow himself to be boxed in as themes weave in and out of the album’s tapestry. Another teenager is embodied on “I’d Rather Be High.” A martial drumbeat from Zachary Alford propels this soldier’s tale, juxtaposing literary references (“Nabokov is sun-licked now,” the opening lyric goes) with simple pleasures (“I’d rather smoke and phone my ex/Be pleading for some teenage sex”) and the reminder that “everybody gets got.” The specters of soldiers and war also hovers over “How Does the Grass Grow,” with its taunting refrain lifted (with credit) from Jerry Lordan’s 1960 instrumental hit “Apache.” Lordan’s song harkens back to Bowie’s own formative days, and even beyond “Where Are They Now,” depictions and recollections of youth surge through the album.
Most surprisingly, there’s funky rock and roll juvenilia on “The Boss of Me.” “Who’d have ever dreamed that a small town girl like you would be the boss of me?,” the singer inquires to the honking sax that veers from jazzy licks to a restrained version of Steve Douglas on Phil Spector’s “little symphonies for the kiddies.” There’s more relative lightness, too, on the bright “Dancing Out in Space” with its gleaming Motown-esque bounce. It’s far from straightforward, though. Bowie tantalizingly offers esoteric lyrics and name-checks a 19th century Belgian author: “silent as Georges Rodenbach,” he sings. But youth and violence still recur in an uneasy dance as The Next Day barrels to its conclusion.
Steve Elson’s baritone sax slithers through “Dirty Boys” as Bowie drily intones, “I will buy you feather hat, I will steal a cricket bat/Smash some windows, make a noise/We will run with dirty boys.” He addresses the same sense of inevitability that rears its head in “The Next Day” and elsewhere (“When the die is cast and you have no choice/We will run with the dirty boys). A palpable sense of dread comes on like a freight train in “If You Can See Me,” a frantic near-duet with the versatile Gail Ann Dorsey. The rapid-fire lyrics are rendered stream-of-consciousness style (“I will take your lands and all that lays beneath/The dust of cold flowers prison of dark of ashes/I will slaughter your kind who descend from belief/I am the spirit of greed a lord of theft”) as violent images unsettle.
One of the strongest tracks, anchored by its crisp, aggressive guitar blasts, is “You Will Set the World on Fire,” a look back to an imagined past. The setting seems to be Greenwich Village in the anything-is-possible sixties: “Midnight in the Village, Seeger lights the candles/From Bitter End to Gaslight/Baez leaves the stage/Ochs takes notes/When the black girl and guitar burn together hot in rage…” Earl Slick’s soaring guitar leads an exciting blast of pure adrenaline. A certain “Bobby” is mentioned in “You Will Set the World on Fire,” and Bowie seems to be picking up The Bard of Hibbing’s venomous torch with a pointedly cruel riposte at a former lover in “[I Hope] You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.” Bowie takes this one in his most persuasive croon, as choral vocals bring drama, piano chords crash and Visconti’s strings swell as a majestic counterpoint to the harsh lyrics.
The anguish of “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” would be a hard act to follow on any album, especially as the penultimate track. And then a tremulous, spooked voice appears. “Heat” serves as a haunted bookend to “The Next Day.” With cries of “My father ran the prison” over a disquieting drone, Bowie also plays prominent acoustic guitar while Visconti scores the most evocative and chilling use of strings on the album. The stirring, anxiety-laden track invites comparison to Scott Walker’s modern ouevre, though Bowie smartly doesn’t try to match the sheer impenetrability of the good Mr. Engel’s latest works. “Heat” is a fitting close to an album that’s generated plenty of it.
Three bonus tracks appear on a deluxe edition (available from all retailers). “So She” is bright, sixties-inspired pop. “This is an instrumental,” the album credits accurately and wryly note of the rather slight “Plan.” Finally, the Bowie/Gerry Leonard co-write “I’ll Take You There” is the most comfortable sonic fit for the proper album sequence. Gail Ann Dorsey and Janice Pendarvis make a strong impression on the harmonies as well as backing Bowie on its rousing chorus of “What will be my name in the USA? Hold my hand and I’ll take you there!”
Nearly 30 tracks were reportedly cut for The Next Day, so another album could be forthcoming. But even if David Bowie heads into another self-imposed retirement, he will have left behind a collection of songs that’s as provocative as those that have come before. Not a reinvention, but rather a resurgence, this finely-crafted album from a defiantly singular artist is likely one that will be revisited the next day, and the next, and another day.