by Andrew P. Street / Faster & Louder
4th March 2013
Ahead of its release this Friday, ANDREW P STREET tries to put a decade of anticipation aside for the 24th album from the Thin White Duke.
Bowie was no fool to sneak out The Next Day. The first that anyone knew about it was when single ‘Where Are We Now?’ appeared without fanfare on his 66th birthday, meaning music journos have been playing catch-up rather than discussing whether his health is up to the job; what it means that he’s working once again with producer Tony Visconti (who worked on most of Bowie’s 70s albums and then returned for Heathen and Reality in the early ‘00s); or the guest spots by occasional guitarist Earl Slick and long-time live rhythm section Gail Ann Dorsey and Sterling Campbell. We’ve been forced to take it at face value more than any Bowie album in decades, without wasting column space on What It All Means, or trying to determine whether that cover is the greatest or worst thing imaginable. (Answer: worst.) Opinions may change with repeated listening, but here we go:
‘The Next Day’
There is a cliche that every positive review of a new Bowie album breathlessly declares it “his best since Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)!” That’s because the album was the end of his pretty-much-flawless run that began with 1971’s Hunky Dory and ended in 1980, followed by 1983’s Let’s Dance (patchy), 1984’s Tonight (lame) and 1987’s Never Let Me Down (oh dear god). And so I am embarrassed to say that the scratchy, discordant, off-beat guitars on the opening title track immediately remind me of Scary Monsters’ opener, ‘It’s No Game (Part 1)’. But then the rock solid drums and down-tuned bass kick in and it sounds not a million miles away from the aforementioned (underrated, worth revisiting) ’00s albums. And despite his age, Bowie’s voice is commanding, even muscular. It’s a strong way to kick off.
It’s a sinister, late night vibe for track two. The syncopated percussion and baritone saxes scream Tom Waits, although Waits would probably not promise that, “I’ll buy you a feathered hat/I’ll buy me a cricket bat” in Finchley Fair in a gloriously dark ode to street violence. Still, this is an excitingly left-field effort, topped with a filthy, bluesy sax solo to fade out.
‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’
Second single is immediately catchy but weirdly anonymous – especially after the one-two opening punch. It’s a two-chord strummer for the most part that sounds like a hundred other sophisticated artists who would like to rock a bit harder than they’re actually capable of doing at this point in their career. Given that he was a key influence, it’s oddly appropriate that this sounds like it would have enlivened the last few Suede albums – although “here they are upon the stairs, sexless and unaroused” sounds far more authoritative coming out of Bowie’s mouth than it would from Brett Anderson’s.
‘Love Is Lost’
It’s a dark, chilly pulse with drums right up front and economical lyrics. Bowie’s vocals are paired with counterpoint blues riffs, echoing Stevie Ray Vaughan’s licks in ‘Let’s Dance’, but where that song was a celebration of escapism, this is a bleak reminder that you can only escape so much: “Your country’s new, your friends are new/Your house, and even your eyes are new/Your maid is new, and your accent too/But your fear is as old as the world.” It takes a left turn into a stand-alone chorus, but this is a perfect example of how Bowie can recontexualise his own past – much as the hideous album cover attempts to do. A definite highlight.
‘Where Are We Now?’
The first single, and a classic Bowie ballad – but sans the croon. The melody is beautiful and the piano simple but effective, but what makes this work so well is how incredibly fragile he sounds. If ‘The First Day’ had Bowie sounding vital and commanding, here he sounds every bit the 66-year-old he is. And there’s something plaintive and beautiful when his voice cracks ever so slightly in the coda: “As long as there’s fire/As long as there’s me/As long as there’s you.” If you thought it was a bit nothing on its own, know that it works beautifully in the context for the preceding songs.
The pace goes back up with this chugging pop-rock about a school shooter – it’s one of the most melodic songs so far, with a stick-in-the-head baritone guitar riff. Still, unlikely to beat ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ for anyone’s favourite song about high school gunmen. Great vocal, though.
‘If You Can See Me’
My god, shit just got prog. It’s the polyrhythmic Bowie of Outside and Earthling, only with the drum’n’bass computers replaced by musicians. If you’ve wondered where the overlapping beats of ‘Little Wonder’ have been in recent years, rest assured that they were dormant, not extinct. Unsettling and impressive.
‘I’d Rather Be High’
Treated guitars get the effect that lesser bands would dial up with a sitar sample in this dreamy piece of psychedelia sung from the perspective of a soldier in the Middle East. And it’s fine, but sounds like a ’90s throwback – why it’s going for a somewhat trippy effect with it’s circular bassline and washes of chords, it’s definitely more U2’s ‘Mysterious Ways’ than ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.
‘Boss of Me’
No, not the They Might Be Giants song from Malcolm in the Middle. It’s another mid-paced chugger lifted by a great vocal performance and an interesting arrangement (especially the return of that low-down sax) that compensates for a fairly nondescript song, although that unnecessary false ending just builds one’s hopes up.
‘Dancing Out In Space’
A variation on the Motown beat (cf: ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, ‘Town Like Malice’, ‘Lust For Life’, ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl?’) is distracting enough to kill those immediate Flight of the Conchords references, and the jazzily discordant chorus offsets the unmemorable verses. This is definitely the weakest song so far. Hmm. There’s a mid of a mid-album slump going on here.
‘How Does The Grass Grow’
Ah, here we go. A big intro with layers of feedback starts things off nicely with an urgent pair of harmonising Bowies and some sweet guitar licks. A “ya-ya-ya” singalong chorus gives the song its co-write credit to Jerry Lordan (since it’s the melody line from Lordan’s classic ‘60s instrumental ‘Apache’). And if that bridge sounds patched in from another song, it provides a glorious contrast for when that more-sound-than-note guitar solo kicks in (I’m guessing it’s Gerry Leonard, the guy responsible for most of the more weird-ass textural guitar stuff on recent Bowie albums). Brilliant. Now we’re back on track.
‘(You Will) Set The World On Fire’
Big chords and a swaggering Earl Slick solo in a song just made to be played live. There’s not a lot else here, but it’s a straightforward rocker on an album that doesn’t really have any other balls-out moments – and again, Bowie sounds great.
‘You Feel So Lonely You Will Die’
Another ballad that Suede would have killed for; a waltz-time, string-adorned, harmony-soaked show-stopper that immediately draws comparison with the (simpler, more effective) ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’ – but it’s a big-gesture end-of-the-set-just-prepare-for-the-encore moment. Also: when Bowie spits, “I can read you like a book,” it’s probably the single greatest line reading on the album.
Bowie’s ‘80s croon makes its first and only appearance over Dorsey’s fretless bass and Leonard’s background textures in this slow-burning closer. “My father ran the prison/I could only love you/By hating him more/It’s not the truth/It’s too big a word” he intones before woozy violins stagger across the bridge into a gorgeous crescendo, and then it all ebbs away.
And we’re done.
Far better than anyone had a right to expect. It might be at least partially a relief to have the Duke back, but The Next Day is easily Bowie’s best album since … nah, let’s not even joke about it.