by Will Hodgkinson / The Times
25th February 2013
There is a reason why David Bowie’s first album in a decade sounds like the Bowie so many of us grew up with; the Bowie that helped us make sense of the world. “If he had told people two years ago that he was making a new album, he would have been flooded with opinions on what it should be like,” says Tony Visconti, the producer who recordedThe Next Day under a cloak of secrecy at New York’s Magic Shop Studios. “By not doing that he made the album he wanted to make.”
Since the mid-1980s, there has been an element of the tail wagging the dog with Bowie. The artist whom others looked to for direction throughout the 1970s slipped behind, chasing trends rather than spearheading them. That isn’t the case on The Next Day. The touchstone here is the angular, brash sound of 1979’s Lodger and 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), as jagged rock riffs combine with jazz noise in a way that sounds vibrant and alive. The elegant balladry of Where Are We Now, the single that came out to everyone’s surprise in January, is a red herring. This is a raw album, recorded live with few overdubs, on which every instrument jumps out at the listener.
The similarities with the Lodger/Scary Monsters period go beyond the musical style and the oblique but personal lyrical themes. After Lodger, Bowie did no interviews and made only one television appearance — onThe Kenny Everett Show. After Scary Monsters he played no live dates, starring in a run of The Elephant Man on Broadway instead. This time round, Bowie is not doing interviews or concerts. He has turned down the Glastonbury Festival. He won’t be coming to the launch of the Bowie exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He remains, for the most part, unseen.
He leaves us simply with a great album and something that is rare in an age when everything is explained and revealed: a sense of mystery.
Track by track
The Next Day
The album begins with the high drama of a searing guitar riff not a million miles from the 1980 single Fashion, and Bowie’s nasal voice singing about a Christ-like figure persecuted by hypocritical priests who “know God exists because the devil told them so”. Bowie sounds increasingly frantic as he sings, “Here I am, not quite dying”, while the guitar rises in a feverish crescendo.
The spirit of Weimar Berlin, always a Bowie favourite, is revived with an oompah brass sound that gives way to a rasping saxophone and lyrics about juvenile delinquency in, of all places, the leafy North London suburb of Finchley.
The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
The mood turns a little slicker on what appears to be a reflection on fame from the perspective of the normal, non-famous person; of how Hollywood royalty “burn you with their radiant smiles, trap you with their beautiful eyes”. Prescient for the awards season it may be, but the smooth soft rock setting makes The Stars the only song on The Next Day that slips by unimpressively.
Love Is Lost
A droning organ, thunderous drums, a buzzsaw guitar and a pulsing bass courtesy of Bowie regular Gail Ann Dorsey bring irresistible garage-punk energy to this tale of a 22-year-old girl suffering a severe case of paranoia. The song changes completely about halfway through, with echoing drums andRide of the Valkyries drama as stripped-down rock turns to classical grandeur.
Where Are We Now
Bowie’s reflective ballad about his days in Berlin, on which he throws off all personas to write from the heart as an ageing man looking back at a magical but melancholic time, is a sweet but atypical tune. It’s out of keeping with the general mood of The Next Day.
A whole load of past Bowie styles crowd in here, including his theatrical, Anthony Newley-influenced 1960s singles, the rock’n’roll beat of The Jean Genie, and even the terrace anthem All the Young Dudes, the 1972 hit Bowie wrote for Mott the Hoople. Guitarist Earl Slick, who played lead onYoung Americans and Station to Station, does a fantastic solo.
If You Can See Me
The strangest song on The Next Dayfeatures sudden tempo changes, a tinny keyboard, Gail Ann Dorsey wailing away in the background and Bowie’s ghostly, disembodied voice repeating: “if you can see me, I can see you”. It’s a blurred vision from a dusty corner of Bowie’s mind.
I’d Rather Be High
Bowie employs high-octane rock and searing new wave to get an anti-war message across. “I’d rather be dead, or out of my head, than training my gun on those men in the sand,” he sings, sounding more like the leader of an edgy young indie band than the 66-year-old superstar he is. It bleeds straight into the next track.
Boss of Me
You can’t help but wonder if this funky, incessantly simple piece is a love song to wife Iman, with its line “who’d have ever dreamed that a small-town girl like you would be the boss of me.” Having said that, Iman is from Mogadishu, the largest city in Somalia, so perhaps not. Featuring Tony Visconti on recorder, Boss of Me is reminiscent of Talking Heads with its constantly moving bass and tight rhythmic style.
Dancing Out in Space
Bowie heads towards the dancefloor with this nightclub smash, which combines a cool, unemotional vocal style with an eerie, space age feel and a driving beat. It’s a tune made for posing to. It’s a shame it didn’t come out in 1981 because the New Romantics would have loved this. You can almost see their foundation cracking under the heat of the disco lights.
How Does The Grass Grow?
There’s a reason why this one sounds familiar. Bowie copped the melody fromApache, a 1964 hit for the Shadows. In Bowie’s hands it becomes something else entirely, an angular, punkish classic combining avant-garde noise with a wild and mercurial ambience.
(You Will) Set the World on Fire
A heavy rock riff reminiscent of the White Stripes combines with a glam rock stomp and a screaming guitar solo to make this a future stadium-filler — that’s if Bowie ever plays a stadium again. Bizarrely, the song is about New York’s early Sixties Greenwich Village folk scene, with Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan all getting a mention.
You Feel So Lonely You Could Die
This has emotional build of the type only Bowie can do, with strings swooping into a dying fall before heavenly harmonies, stirring piano lines and Bowie’s impassioned, crooner-like singing lead towards a chorus it’s impossible not to be moved by. It’s a huge song, ending with the drum pattern from Ziggy Stardust’s Five Years and an acoustic guitar strum from Bowie.
The apocalyptic misery of Diamond Dogs, in particular We are the Dead, is revived on this ominous dirge. Bowie sounds subdued and mournful as he sings, “my father ran the prison”, again and again.
So She (extra track)
Only two and a half minutes long, So Sheis the most jaunty and straightforward pop song on the album. “She saw me smile, feeling like I’ve never been the only one from long ago,” sings Bowie, sounding quite happy about it.
Plan (extra track)
An instrumental rather like something from Low or Heroes, Plan features Robert Fripp-style reverberating guitars and a resounding organ hum.
I’ll Take You There (extra track)
Another Scary Monsters-style new wave rock song, this time with funky guitar stabs and a touch of the mood Bowie evoked when he produced Iggy Pop’s 1977 album The Idiot. It ends suddenly, completing an album that is a cause for celebration for anyone who cares about the impact David Bowie has made on the world.
David Bowie: The Next Day is released in the UK by Sony on March 11