by Paul Gleason / Rock Cellar Magazine
To quote R.E.M., we have to “walk unafraid.” and state the obvious: The Next Day is David Bowie’s best album since 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).
The record harkens back to Bowie’s best work – the classic Berlin Trilogy of Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977), and Lodger (1979) – not just because of its music but also because of its sheer creativity and freshness.
At the age of 66, the master is back with an undeniable masterpiece, a record that takes his signature sounds to new places. You’ll play The Next Day over and over again because all the songs are bursts of creativity that engage your intelligence and move your soul. These songs do what Bowie does best and reaffirm the tremendous gifts that he’s made to rock and roll.
And some of us thought that 2002’s Heathen and 2003’s Reality were true Bowie comebacks. Bah!
You have to wait until track nine for Bowie to state outright The Next Day’s mission statement. On Boss of Me – whose rhythm and lead guitar recall classic Low tracks like Sound and Vision and Always Crashing in the Same Car without simply mimicking them – Bowie sings, “I want to make it cool again.” He succeeds.
The new songs fall into three camps, each containing great songs that smack of aspects of Bowie’s genius.
Camp One consists of songs that emphasize Bowie’s vocal abilities and the way that he can transform his voice to suit any song that he chooses to write. Lou Reed, in a documentary on the making of 1972’s Transformer, talks about the high-register backing vocals that Bowie performs on Satellite of Love. He says that they make the song.
Bowie uses this same register on some of the best cuts from his glam-rock period. Just listen to the Ziggy Stardust (1972) and Aladdin Sane (1973) albums, and you’ll hear how Bowie manages to sing catchy pop melodies in a high range that simultaneously recalls 1960s’ pop and forecasts bratty punk.
You’ll hear Bowie return – at the age of 66 – to this voice when you visit Camp One of The Next Day. The title track, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), Valentine’s Day, How Does the Grass Grow, and I’d Rather Be High all feature this voice – but with twists that don’t make them mere copies of Bowie’s triumphs from his glam-rock period.
Stars, for example, amalgamates one of the catchiest and weirdest vocal melodies that Bowie has ever written with a terrific lead guitar line. While recalling the songs on Ziggy and Aladdin, this rocker is somehow stranger yet more accessible. And Grass features some of the patented Bowie backing vocals of which Reed speaks. They’re high pitched and smack of the 50s’ parodies on Ziggy but with cool horns and a noisy guitar solo that make the song totally new.
Bowie populates Camp Two of The Next Day with tunes that update the aesthetic of the Berlin Trilogy. The aforementioned Boss of Me belongs here, as do The Dirty Boys, Love Is Lost, and Dancing Out in Space. But as the poet Ezra Pound once said, great art (such as these songs) “make it new.”
The Dirty Boys is prime example. Filled with distorted guitars, off-kilter horns, and an original melody, the track is founded on the experimental drive of the Berlin albums. But Bowie – whose fearlessness should always be praised – isn’t satisfied with duplicating his classic work. The horns are a bit weirder than they are on the Berlin albums, the guitars are a tad more distorted, so The Dirty Boys becomes something almost unheard of today: an original work of popular art.
The songs in Camp Three take Bowie’s non-glam and non-Berlin recordings as their basis. Not only do these songs remind you that Bowie did some of his best work on albums that didn’t receive critical praise and/or public popularity, but they demonstrate that these albums had ideas that could later be fleshed out for better use.
These songs include Where Are We Now? and the three tracks with which The Next Day ends: (You Will) Set the World on Fire, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, and Heat. Stylistically disparate, these songs are simply phenomenal. Where Are We Now? and You Feel So Lonely You Could Die are sad ballads that Bowie performs in a fragile voice that recalls his singing on 1999’s ‘Hours…’—a record that the press lambasted because they thought that it was Bowie’s insincere attempt to be sincere. But, taken in the context of the rest of The Next Day, the sincerity of Bowie’s despondent balladry is only too apparent—and compelling.
In addition, the heavily distorted guitar riffing on World on Fire will convince you that Bowie’s Tin Machine-era, Sonic Youth- and Pixies-influenced noise was a necessary and liberating experiment, simply because it led to a song that rocks this hard.
Heat – the album’s amazing closer – is one of the best songs on the album and of Bowie’s entire career. Sure, it sounds like a more accessible version of Scott Walker, but Bowie’s never denied his debt to Walker. Sung in Bowie’s wondrous baritone, the song actually recalls Bowie’s 1995 concept album Outside, which focused on the doings of the serial killer Nathan Adler. But listened to outside the context of Outside and in the context of The Next Day, the style of Heat is ominous and not bogged down by a self-indulgent narrative.
So do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of The Next Day when it comes out on March 12. When you do, you’ll own the best record of the year so far, as well as one of the best albums of Bowie’s career.