Falling Back to Earth
David Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’
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True to the spirit of The Next Day, David Bowie’s first studio album in ten years, one should jump straight in at track one and describe proceedings from there. Bowie’s brusque manner on the opening title track, and the stomp of the 13 tracks that follow – some tipping just three minutes – signal that the great man is impatient to impress and keen not to linger on the past. Any way you look at it, the album has to be regarded as a new chapter in a recording career that began, amazingly enough, in 1964.
Paragraphs, then, will not be devoted to evaluating Bowie’s back catalogue or even the more recent albums that have led to this most unexpected of “comebacks”. All that needs to be said is that David Bowie is the most talented and charismatic solo artist that British rock has produced, and his influence on other musicians and the sprawl that is pop culture is immense. His golden decade was the ’70s – a long time ago, admittedly, but he bestrode it in the manner that Dylan and Elvis did the preceding decades. It had seemed, in fact, that he was in retirement. The ill health that caused the cancellation of dates on his last tour in 2004, and the birth of a daughter to his wife, Iman, in 2000, were two factors in provoking a silence that seemed permanent and somehow – given the Bowie mystique – fitting.
The new album was heralded by a single, ‘Where Are We Now?’, that fell from the sky into a million inboxes on 8 January this year – Bowie’s 66th birthday – and what a gift it was. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s producer, expressed surprise at the choice of single given the number of more up-tempo and commercial tracks on offer. Bowie, though, got it right, picking the best song from the album as an effective lead-in to the LP. It comes in at track five, and is a steadying hand after a very bullish and scattershot start.
‘The Next Day’, ‘Dirty Boys’, ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ and ‘Love is Lost’ pull the album open in a number of directions. The first two songs are a one–two punch, with the honked, almost Tom Waits–like riffage of ‘Dirty Boys’ a dramatic volte-face after the frenetic I’m-back-in-business push of the title track. A piece of glorious, widescreen pop follows, which is then clipped by the noisy snarl of ‘Love is Lost’. So when Bowie tenderly intones, “Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz / You never knew that, that I could do that”, the wonderfully enigmatic first line from ‘Where Are We Now?’, it is as if a curtain is coming down on the album’s opening act. One other point has to be made about the single: besides the quality of the song and the pathos of the lyrics, it gives welcome prominence to Bowie’s vocal in the mix, and this creates a translucent pool of sound on what is a very loud record. Here is one criticism that can be put to the album: one of the finest (the finest?) vocalists in rock can be hard to hear at times.
Now the album settles into a long run of cohesive songs, and its shape and intent become clear. This is not going to be a one-mood album in the manner of such ’70s classics as Low, Station to Station and Ziggy Stardust, where songs were built to fit an album’s conceptual frame. Nor is the record a move into a new sonic style: the booming drums and wailing electric guitar refer directly to Bowie’s late 1970s “Berlin” albums, “Heroes” especially. And perhaps it is here that ‘Where Are We Now?’, with its wistful recollections of everyday life in the then-divided city, emerged, either as a lyrical motif arising from the album’s sound, or as a prompt to inspire it. If there is a surprise that an artist as restless as Bowie would lean on past glories, the sound of “Heroes” could be to him what Crazy Horse is to Neil Young, a home for songs.
With ten years to write these songs, there are going to be surprises, the biggest being the ’60s-inspired pop of ‘Valentine’s Day’ and ‘I’d Rather Be High’. The latter, with Bowie adopting a nasal Lennon-ish drawl, is a tune that could have cracked the charts in early 1967. And there are plenty of other things Bowie does well: ‘Dancing out in Space’ is the ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ / ‘Modern Love’ groove-pop song, and a hit probably; while ‘Boss of Me’, with its big chorus and sweep, is the best rock song on the record. Intriguing are ‘If You Can See Me’ and ‘How Does the Grass Grow’, where Bowie swims upstream against the melody, chucking in great gobbets of lyric to create a dense form of avant-pop. The stop–start nature of recording over a number of years may explain the variety of songs, but the impression is of someone bringing gifts for everyone – and the album no doubt will be his most successful in decades.
There are two misfires and they can be attributed to a character called Bombastic Bowie, who has always been around, but is normally kept in check when Bowie is at his best. ‘(You Will) Set the World on Fire’ tries very hard, with Visconti employing every sonic trick he has to bring a stock chorus to life. And ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’ is too obviously “the big ballad”, the scene of many a past Bowie triumph – see ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide’, ‘Rock ’n’ Roll with Me’ and ‘Wild is the Wind’. Yet here the sheer predictability of intent hinders, as does a totally overwrought vocal. Thankfully redemption is only a track away, and the record ends well with ‘Heat’, the oddest and most unsettling song on the album, just as ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ is on Hunky Dory. The landscape evoked is a Cormac McCarthy-esque post-apocalyptic void – “The night was always falling / The peacocks in the snow” – with Bowie going out, enigma fully intact, on “I tell myself I don’t know who I am”.
Which is not true. Bowie knows who he is, but he’s not telling – at least not via his lyrics. This was his big break with ’60s music, specifically with the prevailing singer-songwriter mode. Bowie’s words are attractive, but they are not confessional: his relationship to what he says and what he feels is closer to that of an actor to a script. It’s why he has adopted characters and poses, and flirted with different kinds of writing styles, including William Burroughs’ cut-and-paste method. Strangely, this doesn’t drain his music of emotional content, as he has the ability to convey feeling through the brilliance of his music, and through clever use of direct and indirect experience. His most famous song, ‘Heroes’, concerns Tony Visconti and a lover trysting by the Berlin Wall – Bowie was watching. So, on the new record, the chorus of ‘Boss of Me’ – “Who would have ever thought that a small-town girl like you / would be the boss of me?” – might be fiction or the irony-filled grumble of a famous dad with a precocious 12-year-old daughter.
This review was written from a four-hour listening session at a record-company office with no lyrics provided – damn that the vocals are so low in the mix. One thing has to be shouted: it’s great to have Bowie back. Rock and roll has been poorer without him. The Next Day is a fighting title. ‘Where Are We Now?’ can be added to his greatest hits. Expect another album in a year.
Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.