David Bowie, Member of the Band

by Jim Fusilli / The Wall Street Journal

5th March 2013

It’s been 10 years since David Bowie released an album, but with “The Next Day” (ISO/Columbia), out March 12 and streaming now on iTunes, he’s in a familiar environment. Led by producer Tony Visconti, all the backing musicians have played at one time or another on an earlier Bowie recording, in particular “Heathen” (2002) and “Reality” (2003). With 14 new Bowie compositions as a springboard on this latest effort, the reunited group has created music that’s rich, dense and urgent. For his part, Mr. Bowie is much less a celebrated nucleus than a prominent member of the band. 

On the title track, which opens the album, Zachary Alford’s pounding drums quake and several guitars punch and squeal as the 66-year-old Mr. Bowie sings “Here I am, not quite dying”—a point his band makes with a resolve that, as the disc progresses, is at times so insistent as to be confrontational. Even a midtempo number like “Boss of Me” asserts itself as Mr. Bowie layers his voice over Steve Elson’s wheedling sax and a relentless underpinning by Mr. Alford and bassist Tony Levin. “If You Can See Me,” in which bassist Gail Ann Dorsey sings to double Mr. Bowie’s vocal, Mr. Alford bashes away with what seems a song-long solo, leaving Mr. Levin to anchor the rhythm. In “I’d Rather Be High,” Mr. Levin and guitarist Gerry Leonard handle with ease a tempo shift in the chorus that buttresses an appealing change to minor from major. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” shares a similar blend of drive and ease as Mr. Bowie’s 1983 hit “China Girl,” while the tough-minded “Dirty Boys” features screeching guitars that step aside for Mr. Elson’s stalking sax. In “(You Will) Set the World On Fire,” a hot, knotty arrangement rockets a clever song in which Mr. Bowie in his lyrics alludes briefly to life in Greenwich Village in the 1960s.

Ballads are in short supply but provide high points. Informed by Ms. Dorsey’s fretless bass, “Heat” is an intriguing, funereal closing number in which Mr. Bowie sings, “I tell myself I don’t know who I am,” one of several songs in which he raises the question of identity. In the wonderful, retro-minded “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” its title culled from Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” Mr. Bowie sings fervently, accompanied by his acoustic guitar and a string section. “Where Are We Now,” the first single, finds Mr. Bowie in a sentimental mood, as he revisits his late 1970s Berlin period. It’s a rarity in rock, a song in which a veteran artist sings from a perspective that’s appropriate to his age. Here Mr. Bowie sounds weary, as does Henry Hey on piano; synthesized strings provide a misty backdrop. But Mr. Bowie finds energy as he returns to the present: “As long as there’s me / As long as there’s you,” he sings, suggesting while much of life may be in one’s past, the remaining time together is precious too, a conceit supported by Mr. Alford’s suddenly crisp drum pattern and Mr. Leonard’s ringing guitar.

For all its strengths, “The Next Day” stumbles under the weight of several indistinct compositions that can’t quite be lifted by the band. “How Does the Grass Grow,” which is built on the Shadows’ 1960 instrumental “Apache,” is static, despite a brief interlude in which Mr. Bowie croons romantically. “Valentine’s Day” fails to take off, though guitarist Earl Slick overdubs fat rockabilly lines and piercing solos that snake around Mr. Bowie’s vocal. “Dancing Out in Space” seems a collection of parts.

But there’s much to savor, not the least of which is the re-emergence of Mr. Bowie. Less concerned with glossy hits than with presenting him as a fully formed contemporary artist in the third act of a lengthy, successful career, “The Next Day” is best viewed as concluding a trilogy begun with “Heathen” and “Reality” and adding to the legacy of a gifted musician. He remains vital, inventive and eager to encourage his band to explore and enrich his varied modes of expression.


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