by Chris Roberts / The Quietus
26th February 2013
“Then we saw Mishima’s dog, trapped between the rocks, blocking the waterfall/ The songs of dust, the world would end/ The night was always falling, the peacock in the snow” ‘Heat’
Time takes another cigarette. In a way, David Bowie is history. The last year has seen an acceleration of this chronological inevitability, with related exhibitions popping up everywhere from the V&A to the Tate Liverpool and an increasingly grateful acknowledgement from the heritage mags that he is as much a part of the embalmed pantheon as the Sixties or Punk. This sits uneasily for those of us forced to accept that our youth is, therefore, now in museums.
And yet – he is still fashion, still twitching, as the artwork for The Next Day – papering over the old icons – and the self-referential new videos insinuate. Bowie Fever has, entertainingly, dominated 2013 thus far. So many sixteen-page pictorial specials, so many get-the-Bowie-look spreads (conveniently ignoring the fact that he’s a pensive 66-year-old guy in a t-shirt and a flat cap, generally bearing a becoming look of wry amusement and not, technically, a flame-haired, green-jumpsuited bisexual alien). This isn’t a bad thing: for all the shrewd, low-key release of the single and the news of this album, the media have happily taken the hint and run with it. In a recent Quietus article I pondered What It All Meant.
Here’s another thing it means: after a decade of drought, the current rebooting of Bowie-mania should see The Next Day sell pretty well and his entire body of work enjoy another welcome airing front and centre. There is pressure, though, on this album, of a degree there wasn’t on Hours or Heathen or Reality. Everyone is now expecting so much.
Fortunately, it’s great. I mean: it’s not just good, it’s great. It’s not Diamond Dogs or Young Americans or Low – get real, this isn’t the Seventies and you and I are not twelve – but it’s great in that it’s not Heathen or Reality but better. No wild pioneering sonic experiments here: it’s primarily a “rock” album with plentiful twists, with the closest sibling being Scary Monsters. The gorgeous melancholy of ‘Where Are We Now?’ is unrepresentative.
To get a mild hesitation out of the way, I sometimes found myself pining for more ballads or tangents to break up the album’s mid-section run of half a dozen (enjoyable) roaring thumpers. Yet it starts with six mercurial wonders (that nobody else could do) that have you grinning because he’s pulled this comeback thing off big-time. They tease, tumble and twirl, referencing his past in flashes but refusing to relinquish their own personalities and identities. Moreover, it closes with two mind-blowing, show-stopping, grandstanding epics: one as baroque as ‘Rock And Roll Suicide’ ONLY MORE SO; one as frazzled and sinister and ticking as Scott Walker’s (ok, The Walker Brothers’) ‘The Electrician’.
So more than half the album is fantastic, and the rest is very, very strong. (Every song’s a concise three or four minutes). I should say that at the time of writing I have heard The Next Day just four times. To review, I went to the PR’s office and sat in a room alone with it for a couple of hours (twice). One understands (or reluctantly accepts) the necessity for this, but it doesn’t offer the same potential for maximum enjoyment as might playing the brand new album by your favourite singer at home whenever you feel like it, nurturing obsession, repeating the tracks which instantly grab you and allowing the less obvious ones to gradually yield their treasures, discovering which bits cause you to involuntarily harmonise or jump around naked or perform a dying swan move. I, like you, have that to look forward to, and confidently predict my response will then graduate from controlled public glee to unrestrained private euphoria.
The Next Day is both crowd-pleasing (I fear I keep making the mid-album rockers sound ordinary: they’re not, they’re rich with nooks and crannies and cute subversions) and left-handed (there are countless moments here which make you double-take). If, arguably, one or two tracks could have been competent fillers on one of the mid-Eighties albums, Tony Visconti is never going to let that happen on his watch. Bowie is in magnificent voice (attack-and-withdrawal, simmer-and-flare) – in fact VOICES, plural, of course – and his trusted players know when he wants it kept straight and when he wants the wheels to spin incautiously. (Mike Garson is a notable absence.) Also, he’s doing more with the lyrics than he has for some time. Bowiephiles will have fun picking over the themes and sub-themes here for ages. What’s that? Oh, you know: death, fame, apocalypse, sex, the way time diminishes things, history, war, guns, shellshock, old Americans, Britain, love, outer space, ambition, parents, children, loneliness and more death.
Enough of my so-grown-up reservations; enough bending over backwards to be objective so I can’t be accused of blind puppy-dog devotion already. Let’s dance. (“They’ll read so much into anything you give them” – Bowie to Ken Scott, discussing ‘The Bewlay Brothers’.)
TRACK BY TRACK
‘The Next Day’
It begins on an insistent guitar-riff and groove, echoing the Iggy-“Berlin” albums, then whooshes up a gear with Bowie adopting the most Americanized of his voices. Visconti has said it’s about the “taking down of a historical tyrant in antiquity [who] was killed by a mob”, but it’d be most unlike Bowie for it to work on one level alone. So, within its brutal lyrics (“my body left to rot in a hollow tree”, “they live on their feet and they die on their knees”), naturally one discerns tickles of that “when the kids had killed the man…” feeling.
It builds to that level of theatrical near-hysteria that featured in the chants and repetitions of the Diamond Dogs album. The clipped, arch chorus growls, “And the next day, and the next – AND ANOTHER DAY!” and it’ll be a poor Bowie fan who isn’t up and posturing along within seconds, going “Wooh!” at the testing relentlessness of existence. On the home straight there are squalls of David Torn guitars from the Fripp-on-‘”Heroes”‘ anti-genre. I heard glimpses of the melody of ‘Repetition’ and the feel of ‘Day In Day Out’, but my scribbled notes also say “‘Up The Hill Backwards’… but constantly moving forwards?” It’s safe to say this is an uplifting entertainment, all-things-to-all-Bowie-eras, except with lyrics that are dark as Hell. And we’re away!
You’re just breathing and basking in the relief that it’s off to a flyer when he does a one-eighty, turning away from rock and striding into art-school with this stuttering staccato rhythm. Despite that unpromising title, it’s brilliant; a creepy, loping, funk thing (think ‘Fame’ slowed down, a little) with squonking saxes (by Steve Elson, not Bowie) that you just want to hear on a loop forever. And then the voice (treated) brings the drama. “I will buy a feathered hat/ I will steal a cricket bat/ Smash some windows, make some noise/ We will run from dirty boys.” Later (“when the sun goes down and the die is cast”) we run “with” (rather than “from”) dirty boys. It’s a track that sounds part-Weimar, part-No-Wave, but ‘Finchley Fair’ gets a mention in there too. He’s nothing if not the king of juxtapositions which shouldn’t work but do.
‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’
“Here they are upon the stairs, sexless and unaroused…” Somehow both a hymn to celebrities and a damnation of same, (“we will never be rid of these stars but I hope they live forever”), this sees a passionate, urgent vocal over an anthemic, stadium-friendly rock number. Strings come in when you don’t expect them to, and are fabulous. You can hear Bowie’s hyperactive antennae and famous faux paranoia twitching in every couplet. “They burn you with their radiant smiles and they trap you with their beautiful eyes/ They’re broke and shamed or drunk and scared…they’re waiting to make their moves on us…” Joan Crawford seen through Bette Davis eyes? Ah, here’s the video. Not far off. You ask me, this is one of the weakest tracks, straining a little.
‘Love Is Lost’
This is off-the-chart THRILLING. Just Bowie, Gerry Leonard’s guitars and Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford’s rhythms, but try the epileptic tensions of side one of Low fused with the menace of ‘Bring Me The Disco King’. An almost unbearably suspenseful pulse-beat, spasmodic drums and guitar scat-bursts, it builds and builds until you wonder if it’s ever going to resolve. (It does, but then reverts, as you crave it to). I want to quote every line, from, “It’s the darkest hour, you’re twenty two, the voice of youth, the hour of dread…” to “your country’s new, your friends are new, your house and even your eyes are new…” And the chorus, as such, says “goodbye to the thrills of life/ when love was good, no, love was bad/ Wave goodbye to the life without pain/ Say hello, you’re a beautiful girl.”
Intimations of mortality? Recollections of earlier times? Musings on relocation to New York? Or about someone else and not about one of his own personae at all? Freudians, analyse that. Have a ball.
This is Bowie at his best (the highest praise) and I was playing it so much in the PR’s office that I began to worry they might think I wasn’t giving the rest of the album due process, which I wanted to, and ultimately did. But sometimes with pop music you fall in greedy selfish more-more-more love, and ‘Love Is Lost’ will do that to any Bowie fan. I’m getting tingles just thinking about it now.
‘Where Are We Now?’
You know this one. The “it’s-all-about-Berlin” decoy; the Trojan horse. Beautiful. Sad. Barely there at first, then emotionally indelible. Flawless.
At once familiar yet fresh, and the kind of pop joy we’d once have described as “an obvious single”. Finger-snaps, a hefty twangy guitar riff, a natural swing and a song that might have featured on [lost Bowie album] Toy. Bowie chooses his Sixties “London” voice. Earl Slick on fire. “Sha la la”s in the background. As standardly-shaped yet confidently classic as ‘Absolute Beginners’. Despite the buoyant feel and a wonderfully youthful holler of “Yeah! Valentine! Valentine!” it’s about all the madmen with guns. A state-of-the-States song, like several here.
‘If You Can See Me’
Frantically intense, increasingly operatic. Ferocious rhythms akin to ‘Look Back In Anger’. The bewildering interplay of voice, song and music take a while to assimilate: I have to say that this, splendidly, is a bit prog. More Outside than “Heroes”. The vocal is high and mighty: “Now you could say I’ve got a gift of sorts/ A fear of rear windows and swinging doors.” Another masterpiece of pop paranoia. Finally it ends on a lofty keyboard drone like a blissful cow mooing.
‘I’d Rather Be High’
A shell-shocked war veteran, still a teenager, bemoans his plight and craves rehab. He’d “rather be dead, or out of my head”. Feels, in parts, like psychedelic UK pop Traffic or Family might have emitted, or The Stones’ ‘We Love You’, with the Hunky Dory voice pulled out of the locker. Another massive chorus. Here’s a couplet: “I stumble to the graveyard and I lay down by my parents/ Whisper: ‘Just remember, duckies – everybody gets got.'” Here’s another: “I’d rather smoke and phone my ex/ Be pleading for some teenage sex… yeah!” It also namechecks Nabokov.
‘Boss Of Me’
A big, brassy, straightforward, mid-tempo pop song about a girl. In a good way. With lovely flickering bass by Tony Levin and saxophone from Elson. Harmonic variations on “Who’d have ever thought of it? Who’d have ever dreamed/ That a small-town girl like you could be the boss of me?” Effortlessly likeable.
‘Dancing Out In Space’
‘Modern Love’ tempo, ‘Dancing With The Big Boys’ adrenalin, silvery guitar twirls from Leonard and Torn. A camp, upbeat, catchy pop song until halfway through it mutates in a how-did-they-do-that way into something more twitchy, taut and discordant like the “Berlin period”. “Girl you move like water/ You got stars upon your head…”
‘How Does The Grass Grow?’
Visconti’s said the title comes from a chant British WW2 soldiers recited as they bayonetted dummies. It’s fast staccato rock again, punctuated by Bowie singing, oddly, a hookline from The Shadows’ ‘Apache’. David Torn is channelling Stevie Ray Vaughan on the Let’s Dance album. More mention of guns and blood. It does that classic Bowie trick of everything changing into a different song for the middle eight. There’s an extraordinary stark breakdown and coda which could be The Velvets jamming ‘Waiting For The Man’…
‘(You Will) Set The World On Fire’
A genuinely heavy, grungey, guitar riff, but more Pin-Ups than Tin Machine. Immediately friendly chorus with a dash of ‘Time Will Crawl’. Visconti’s strings are rather T. Rex; Slick’s solo shreds. “Kennedy would kill for the lines that you’ve written”. My reading is that this might be a rallying call to David’s daughter, though I’m sure there will be many other interpretations. “I can hear the nation cry, I can see the magazines…” But enough ridiculously good art-rock, what we need now is a show-stopping torch song…
‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’
And they don’t come much better than this. You like ‘Wild Is The Wind’ and ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ and ‘Rock And Roll Suicide’ but thought he’d never go there again? Thought maybe the voice had lost the fire for such grandstanding? Welcome to your happiest dream of epic wallowing in sadness. Remember when Bowie covered ‘I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday’ on Black Tie White Noise? Now just imagine he’d got it right.
After a subtle doo-wop intro, strings do their thing and the exposed vocal comes in with great intimacy and candour. There are grey buildings (in my head it’s Manhattan), there are people, and then “no-one ever saw you moving through the dark/ Leaving slips of paper somewhere in the park…” You know it builds. You know it swells. You probably weren’t expecting more guns and blood on this one, but there they are, along with backing vocals from Gail and others that are as exquisitely placed as ‘Satellite Of Love’.
“I want to see you clearly before we close the door…I can see you as a corpse hanging from a beam…I can feel you falling, hear you moaning in your room…Oh see if I care. Please please make it soon…”
His last note is majestic. Then a chord. What a finale, right? But now what’s this? Oh, only the drum pattern from ‘Five Years’ knowingly brought in for thirty spooky, shivery seconds, and taking us out, full circle, self-referencing, self-mocking, and of course self-mythologising. And yet so much more powerful and moving than such “inauthenticity” is “supposed” to be. With Bowie, ‘twas ever thus. He knows you know he knows, but that doesn’t alter the fact that time is passing, faster than ever. You’re not alone. Or, y’know, maybe when you’re older, you are.
Any sensible comeback album would end on that juddering high. Curtain, bows, bouquets. The Next Day is too alive (and dare we say it, uncalculated) to be sensible. ‘Heat’ is a burring, prickling curveball, Bowie singing with acoustic guitar but backed by washes of white noise, Gail Ann Dorsey emulating Jaco Pastorius, and other atmospherics. You think it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before until a penny drops and you go: hang on…The Walkers’ ‘The Electrician’. The time-honoured Engel-Bowie cross-fertilisation is an open secret but this may be its finest fulmination. And as if the previous track didn’t stare mortality in the eye coldly enough, the refrain here is: “And I tell myself I don’t who I am”. The constant Bowie marriage of autobiography and artifice rages on. He mentions his “father” (“I can only love you by hating him more…that’s not the truth, it’s too big a word. He believed that love is theft – love and whores…”). It goes on, “I am a liar. I am a seer.” It’s phenomenal.
Every Bowie biography from now on is going to have a lot more cod psychology to do. And even after all these years, all these artistic statements, we don’t know what’s a confession and what’s a character. The interface between the two (substance and style seduce each other, Miller and Monroe in one misfit) affords Bowie more mystery than any other living singer, still.
Officially the album ends there, but there are three short bonus tracks. ‘So She’ is gentle but romantic, like a jaunty Hunky Dory out-take. ‘Plan’ (previewed at the start of the video for ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’) is a stunning instrumental rush, straight outta Berlin, a piledriver chord-drone extended over click-beats, like an elusive found fragment, a blue-blue-electric-blueprint. ‘I’ll Take You There’ (refrain: “who will I become in the USA?”) is another tight, chunky rock nugget. ‘Plan’ is the one you’ll want to concern yourself with.
David Bowie, then. History, but still happening. And the next day, and the next.
Greatness. It can’t go on. It goes on.