Monday, March 18, 2013

David Bowie 33: The Next Day

The last two times David Bowie staged a “comeback” was the ‘80s, when Let’s Dance and Never Let Me Down were each preceded by a baffling three-year gap. This time, however, the comeback is more profound and satisfying, since he’d more or less been written off to old age. Somehow, against all odds, there’s a new Bowie album, just as if he hadn’t spent the past nine years away from music. Where the ‘90s found him following trends instead of setting them, The Next Day is simply an album. Or, as one of our favorite reviews says, it’s a Bowie best-of, except that all the songs are new.
The title track recalls “Repetition” from Lodger but happily moves on from there. Like most of the lyrics on the album, they don’t match the era suggested by the music. Many advance reviews called “Dirty Boys” a Tom Waits homage; that’s an uninspired comparison, since if anything, it’s another track in the vein of the Berlin trilogy or Scary Monsters. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” has an excellent driving beat, even if the lyrics need a little work to be convincing. One of the more inscrutable tracks is “Love Is Lost”, with its tense backing and abrasive organ. But right away that’s four strong tracks to set up the curveball. “Where Are We Now?” was a striking choice for the first sample from the album, as it’s so slow. Taken within the context of the rest of the album, it’s gorgeous. “Valentine’s Day” is a deceptively catchy tune, but the subject matter appears to be a school shooting, so it seems perverse to enjoy it. Still, try not to swoon at the guitar line that follows the chorus (foreshadowed in the previous song). “If You Can See Me” is incredibly chaotic, but he makes it hang together, even with a sped-up vocal buried in the mix.
Much of the album touches on the concept of war waged by deluded despots—not a new subject for him. “I’d Rather Be High” and “How Does The Grass Grow?” both offer laments from the point of view of a young soldier boy stuck in an impossible situation, but again, the atmosphere doesn’t belabor the point. One thing the album lacks is a wacky cover, and “Boss Of Me” might have been the best place to put it, were it the Malcolm In The Middle theme song. There is a silly dance song, and if you can’t tap your toes to “Dancing Out In Space”, you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog. “(You Will) Set The World On Fire” begins with a promising riff, and pounds away at a late ‘80s/Tin Machine idea that completely jars with lyrics about the Greenwich Village folk scene. Something of a gear shift happens with “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”, a torchy tune that ends with a nod to “Five Years”, adding to the “coming full circle” vibe. It makes “Heat” an ambiguous ending for the album proper, slowing things down for only the second time. It’s tough to figure out what’s going on here, except that his father ran a prison, which affects his identity.
The album was simultaneously released in a “deluxe” edition, which added three tracks, of which “Plan” is the most exciting, a brief instrumental used as the intro music to the “Stars” video. By year’s end, an even more elaborate deluxe package appeared, with a DVD plus a second CD offering those three tracks, a Japanese exclusive track, two remixes and some more new songs. Of those, “The Informer” expands on the promise of “Plan”, and “Born In A UFO” has a trashy charm.
The Next Day is a very “poppy” album, just as Heathen and Reality were in their own small ways. He worked with a small crew of longtime regulars, just happy to be along for the ride. Anybody looking for an early clue to the new direction should instead relax and enjoy that same ride. It’s tempting to crow about how wonderful the album is; we must admit that our enthusiasm about The Next Day comes from a) the excitement at having a new album when he’d seemed to have retired, and b) the fact that it’s not a wretched attempt to be trendy. It’s a Bowie album, in that it sounds like him. And boy, is it nice to have.
That said, the cover—a manipulation of “Heroes”—is just plain lazy coming from a guy who’s thrived on striking visuals.

David Bowie The Next Day (2013)—

3 comments:

  1. Nice, insightful review. And I happen to agree with you as well.

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  2. Great analysis. I was anticipating this review almost as much as the album itself.

    My initial take - a "conventional" album, which in the past was maybe the worst insult you could hurl at Bowie. It's pleasant, not demanding -- which could also be viewed as backhanded compliments. But it all boils down to your two concluding points - great to have Bowie back, with Bowie sounding like Bowie. And there's nary a dud on the record.

    Smart move to release "Where Are We Now?" as the first sample, because there is now a familiarity with the track when it plays within the context of the album. I get more of a Tin Machine vibe from the lyrics of "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" -- "sexless and unaroused" is very "Under the Gods"

    I like the song that rips off the Jack White song, which in turn rips off the "Beverly Hills, 90210 theme." I swear I heard Jeff Lynne doing the "sha-la-la" backing vocals on "Valentine's Day," but then I awoke from that cruel nightmare.

    Totally agree on the lame album cover. Why not give a young artist a break? It's almost as if he ran out of money. Still, maybe it will turn some kid onto buying "Heroes."

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  3. That's high praise! Thanks very much!

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