by Jonathan Alley / Stack
Late last year, a UK website published a piece about David Bowie being seen on the streets of Manhattan. The artist had been so reclusive in recent years that David Bowie going for a walk became ‘news’. The absence of music’s arch–manipulator and transient man of musical shadows had evolved into open speculation: no albums since 2003, no tours since 2004 after a heart problem, only a handful of public appearances. The Flaming Lips went so far as to record Is David Bowie Dying?
When the singer announced the existence of this album in January, the mere fact he’d produced some music was noteworthy. Typically, Bowie is playing with his own visage to make The Next Day an event. He’s repurposed 1977’s “Heroes” art, and utilised an image of himself in the present day, with a framed picture of himself and literary legend William Burroughs in the background in 1974. He wants to us to hear where he’s going, but know where he’s been.
Firstly, this is a work of art, not of entertainment. There are no obvious singles (even Low had one of those); secondly, it’s vital to separate the sense of ‘event’ from the sense of ‘the work’. This is a desperately mournful set of songs, addressing mortality and destiny, Bowie’s typically magpie-ish sense of artistic restlessness, and a gnawing sense that despite life now being inherently difficult, it’s also inherently more valuable. “Here I am/not quite dying…The next day/the next day and another day” quavers that fragile but still rivetingly phrased voice on the opening title track, Tony (Low, Scary Monsters) Visconti’s production and Earl Slick’s rockist –and hardly restrained – guitar immediately familiar to fans.
On the cavernous, distanced and dissonant Love is Lost , he sings “say goodbye to the thrills of life/wave goodbye to the life without pain.” But The Dame’s sense of humour – blessedly – remains thoroughly intact.“I stumbled to the graveyard/I whispered to my parents ‘just remember duckies, everybody gets got’” he sings on I’d Rather Be High, with it’s insistent, recurring Eastern motif.
Where 2003’s Reality seemed crammed with over-produced moments (and the odd brilliant one), here Bowie and Visconti are playing with textures and spaces all the way through. If the busy moments sound slightly flat, the spaciousness of Dirty Boys – all dark alley guitars and moody sax – and the cloying, sonorous, claustrophobic Heat (driven by Gail Anne Dorsey’s lithe basswork) are among several highlights.
The Next Day is two tracks too long (sit out the formulaic (Valentine’s Day and You Will Set the World on Fire). But there’s no set gear, and it frees the material superbly. Tips of the hat to the musical past are fun, not dominant (hear the echo of Boys Keep Swinging on Boss of Me, even a hint of Syd Barrett’s Arnold Layne on So She – one of three songs on the deluxe 17 track version).“I can hear you moaning in your room/walls have got you cornered/ you’ve got the blues my friend” he croons on the melancholy but oddly exhilarating Feel So Lonely You Could Die, referencing Elvis while channelling Scott Walker. It won’t be filed with ’70s classics, but easily his best in two decades. The man, and the art, are very much alive.