by Brett Warner / …Ology
1st March 2013
David Bowie took his sweet time when it came to approaching The Next Day (out March 12), his unexpected (to say the least) twenty-fourth album; recorded in New York’s East Village under cover of secrecy with a team of trusted collaborators (producer Tony Visconti, guitarists Gerry Leonard, Earl Slick and David Torn, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey) and an inexplicably newfound desire to make music again. For an album recorded at such a leisurely pace… after such an interminable wait… there’s an astounding amount of tension and urgency on this, the “didn’t think it’d ever happen” follow-up to 2003’s Reality.
It’s been a long and lonely decade, but Bowie hasn’t lost his affinity for pitting opposing sounds and ideas against one another. There’s the forward connotation of the title juxtaposed against the retrospective, Heroes-defacing album artwork… the weathered timbre of Bowie’s vocals jarring with the youthful energy of the arrangements. He certainly didn’t need to put out another record… and yet The Next Day is too vital, too “now” to be some sort of half-hearted attempt at career epilogue. Forget all the years of waiting and wondering and put aside all the circulating rumors and unanswered questions– simply put, The Next Day is just the next David Bowie album, albeit with maybe the biggest “just” I’ve ever committed to print.
So what does a new David Bowie album sound like in 2013? Unsurprisingly, like an extension of his vastly underrated ’00s work: there’s a clear sonic through-line between the latter day rock of Heathen and Reality and what’s brewing here, first and foremost on the unapologetically Scary Monsters-ish title track, where Bowie proclaims “Here I am, not quite died” over David Torn’s wonky, wiry guitar gnashing. You can dispel any fear that Bowie has forgotten how to rock, roll or groove… purposely fueled, one expects, by the aching introspection of lead single “Where Are We Now?” “(You Will) Set The World On Fire” riffs tighter and harder than anything since the Ziggy Stardust days, while “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” and “Boss Of Me” coat their loose-limbed rhythms with thick, gooey dollops of sludgy electric guitar. Bowie and Visconti’s vibrant future rock palette finds room for a few curveballs (the vaguely Tom Waits-style sleaze of “Dirty Boys” is a sauntering delight), but learned fans of Bowie’s last few albums won’t have trouble following the sonic road signs, from the tumbling post-jungle rhythms of “If You Can See Me” through the airy flutter pop of the fittingly titled “Dancing Out In Space.”
What does David Bowie feel like talking about in 2013? At a glance, there’s a surprising amount of violence in Bowie’s rambled prose: a pair of soldier songs (the shimmering “I’d Rather Be High” and the staccato, “Apache”-interpolating “How Does The Grass Grow?”) bookend a wry, almost blasé look at a high school shooting (“Valentine’s Day”) that, alas, couldn’t be more timely. Still, his themes are as refreshingly out of reach as always; try connecting the dots between the medieval imagery of “The Next Day” and the final “My father ran the prison” coda of the gently throbbing, Eno-esque “Heat” if you feel up to a challenge. Frankly, your time is better marveling at the orchestral sweep of classic-destined “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” Bowie’s 21st century response to the dancehall fighting and mousy-haired girls of “Life On Mars?”
What does it all mean, then? It used to be customary to compare each new Bowie record to Scary Monsters or the Berlin Trilogy, and there are clear lines to draw between The Next Day and that extended transition between the glam-bam early days and the hit-or-miss post-MTV works that followed (I mean, what else can you say about an album that literally builds off the foundation of Heroes, right?) but there’s an air of achievement about The Next Day that feels removed from the shadow of history or the weight of expectations. Emerging gracefully from the ten-year retirement party we all threw for him, David Bowie has turned out a truly great (it didn’t even need to be… but it is) record into to a world no longer accustomed to great records or the lonely aliens who make them. I feel like he would want us to tear this thing open, throw it onto the ground and devour all of the jagged little pieces rather than caravan it around like some rare and precious jewel, but there are moments for both on The Next Day. It’s the David Bowie album we didn’t think we needed, the one we never thought we’d receive and the one we’ve spent the last decade dreaming about all at once. “Not quite died” indeed—The Thin White Duke has returned once more, alive, relevant and necessary as ever. Maybe more so.