by Gavin Martin / The Mirror
1st March 2013
On January 8, David Bowie celebrated his 66th birthday by unleashing his first new music in 10 years on an unsuspecting world.
The surprise may have faded, but now a full scale celebration can commence because The Next Day, the 24th studio album of his career, is quite simply one of Bowie’s greatest achievements.
In the decade since he released his last album, Reality, the concerns for David’s health that followed his 2004 emergency heart surgery have been compounded by the starman’s almost total withdrawal from public life.
Many assumed an ailing Bowie was counting the cost of living a fast and dangerous life as he went under the radar in his New York-based retirement with model wife Iman and 12-year-old daughter Alexandria.
But listening to this album, it’s easy to imagine Bowie hearing the rumours with wry amusement.
From the charged chaotic bustle of its opening title track, The Next Day is the sound of a man fully engaged and energised by life and, indeed, his own musical past.
1. THE NEXT DAY
The Dame’s first shot across the bows is delivered in droll, fast, furious and funny style.
Guitars duel against a frenetic bustling beat and searing string arrangement.
The lyrics could be playfully alluding to his health scare: “Here I am, not quite right/Plenty more shadows on the dancefloor for me”.
A Diamond Dogs dystopian future is also suggested as the narrator goes “chasing through the alley”, professing he can’t get “enough of that Doomsday song”.
2. DIRTY BOYS
Anyone fearing that the contentment of married life has detached demon Dave from his bedhopping bisexual past can rest easy.
This sleazy bump ’n’ grinder, edged along by Steve Elson’s rudely suggestive baritone sax, is funky musical molasses – an irresistible mutation of the ‘plastic soul’ sound he pioneered on Young Americans.
3. THE STARS (ARE OUT TONIGHT)
With Dave on acoustic guitar, this cautionary anthem, dealing in both celebrity and destiny – “They’re waiting to make their moves on us/The stars are out tonight” – has a clear Ziggy Stardust allusion which is memorably picked up later on the album.
4. LOVE IS LOST
No one does inner turmoil, fear, unease and mournful longing quite like Bowie.
Those qualities, reflected in some of his greatest tunes, are captured here in a robotic Berlin-era groove featuring Gail Ann Dorsey on bass and Gerry Leonard contributing an angry guitar squall under Dave’s doom-laden swoon announcing “this is the darkest hour”.
It is a song for our time and all time, beautifully setting up the album’s introductory single.
5. WHERE ARE WE NOW?
Tentatively piecing together remnants of a dimly recalled past into a meditative prayer, Where Are We Now? is not afraid to show the tenderness and frailty that comes with age.
It also boasts the melodic gift of a master.
6. VALENTINE’S DAY
Despite its title, the chances of this melodically memorable stormer taking its place as a cupid hitpick alongside Heroes may be compromised by its alleged subject matter, a high school shooting.
Even so, the commanding vocal, aided by a key change lift-off, ensures a fantastically rousing tune.
7. IF YOU CAN SEE ME
Bowiephiles will have much to pore over lyrically on this album – not least in deconstructing the identity enacted on this chaotically-charged slice of Lodger-recalling Pan African psychedelia.
8. I’D RATHER BE HIGH
“I’d rather be dead or out of my head” cries a battle-scarred soldier against monster metal riffs that recall Sabbath’s War Pigs and Zeppelin’s Achilles’ Last Stand.
The desert setting suggests contemporary conflict, the language of drugged abandon masterfully manipulated to address the scourge of war. A great song for squaddies everywhere.
9. BOSS OF ME
One of the first to recognise the songwriting talent of Bruce Springsteen, Bowie’s playful genius is at work here.
With Elson’s baritone once more to the fore, this is like a Clarence Clemons-era Boss song turned upside-down.
10. DANCING OUT IN SPACE
Peppy and easy to handle pop, although not as immediately striking or inspiring as what has gone before. File under filler.
11. HOW DOES THE GRASS GROW?
Even as Bowie fondly rekindles his earliest musical loves (sampling the riff from The Shadows’ 1960 hit Apache), he adopts the persona of a unforgiving inquisitor with some extraordinary crooning.
12. (YOU WILL) SET THE WORLD ON FIRE
Key Bowie influence Bob Dylan and his fellow Greenwich Village folk heroes David Van Ronk and Phil Ochs are all mentioned in this blistering tribute to the potency of the early 60s scene in Bowie’s adopted hometown. Earl Slick pours six-string gasoline on top.
13. YOU FEEL SO LONELY YOU COULD DIE
This is the album’s stand-out track, its title taken from Elvis Presley’s first hit, Heartbreak Hotel.
The churning wrath and suicidal anguish of the lyric, the blazing string arrangement, massed chorus and a drop into Ziggy Stardust’s Five Years drum pattern befit a suitably awesome showdown between the Duke and the King.
The final track takes a magnificently unsettling left-field diversion.
The stark portentous setting betrays the influence of Scott Walker, but Bowie’s fearsome brand of confession casts a spell only he can muster.
An all-conquering closer.