by Thomas Hannan / The Line of Best Fit
1st March 2013
On arriving at said office, nervous and excited, a few more titbits of information were revealed. David Bowie had been working on this record for three years. All the musicians signed non disclosure agreements. There’s no management as such; Bowie contacted his PR directly three days before ‘Where Are We Now?’ arrived to say there was an album, and the single from it would come out on his birthday. He’d like journalists to listen to it alone if possible, at this office, on a “normal stereo system”. No downloads, no streams. Other than that, people were to make of it what they wanted.
And there’s so much to make of this. Usually, if you’ve heard a record before someone else, they’ll first ask you how it sounds. This didn’t quite transpire with The Next Day. “Is it good?” was the standard primary concern, rather than a question of what it was actually like. It’s understandable – you have to admit that the past few years (decades?) have not been ones of vintage Bowie. So, to calm any worried souls, The Next Day is very, very good. Purposefully good – the work of someone who seemingly knew that if he was going to come back at all, it had to be with something blessed with brilliance.
As for what it actually sounds like… whoa, nelly. It’s unapologetically self referential, and it pushes envelopes around like a playground bully. It sounds made for massive, flag waving, festival audiences, and its maker doesn’t ever want to play it live. It’s sad, slow, and dark, and it’s also uplifiting, frantic and dazzling. It’s a record brimming with youth, and wizened with age, one of constant contradiction, and singular vision. I look forward to the years it’ll take to get my head around it (forgive me, but as with everyone else reviewing this, I’ve only had a few spins).
Bowie seems to be revelling in his ability to surprise. Visconti deeming the stately ballad ‘Where Are We Now?’ to be a red herring was no joke – it’s practically the only slow jam here. What’s more the order of the day are the likes of the opening, title track, which sees Bowie on full throttle right from the off on a brash, swaggering number that opens the record in a similar manner to how ‘It’s No Game (Part 1)’ ushered in Scary Monsters. The same musicians who sounded like they were holding back tears on ‘Where Are We Now?’ are here, having a blast. And if he didn’t sound alive enough, he even addresses his continuing existence with the wry chorus line “here I am, not quite dying”; a lyric that takes on extra significance when you remember that a few weeks ago, many fans – not least the Flaming Lips – actually worried that David Bowie might be dying.
It’s not a start that sounds particularly modern, but it’s one that does sound unmistakably like vintage Bowie. The fact that that is an aesthetic that has rarely been bettered means one doesn’t spend too much time contemplating the album’s place in the current musical landscape. Bowie certainly isn’t concerned with it; the second number, the frankly amazing ‘Dirty Boys’, would have fitted very neatly – and been one of the best tracks on – Iggy Pop’s Bowie-penned classic The Idiot. It’s a total left turn from the frantic pace of the opener, but the slower tempo doesn’t mean a lessening of force – this a menacing, devious number that’s as playful with its lyrics (“I will steal a cricket bat, smash some windows make a noise, we will run with dirty boys”) as it is mean-spirited in its sound, all sinister guitar tones and a show-stealing turn from Steve Elson’s bastard saxophone.
The band are in such fine form that one of the few points of sadness to be taken from The Next Day is the fact that it’s unlikely it’ll ever be toured. What one wouldn’t give to see Bowie shaking that behind to the crunching blues of ‘You Will Set The World On Fire’, or his face screaming the “what have you done, what have you done?!” line to close the exploration of teenage angst that is ‘Love Is Lost’ (a wonderful turn that sounds like Wire with added church organs, and shook me in my seat). That’s juxtaposed with the far more ripened sound of ‘Where Are We Now?’, a song now so pored over that extra analysis here probably serves little purpose, other than to impart what a joy it is to hear it in context. Its grappling with age that sees Bowie “just walking the dead” around his old Berlin haunts contrasts with the preceding ‘Love Is Lost’ and its musings on youth in a way that’s startling and masterful.
There are also numerous moments in which it becomes clear just quite how influential Bowie’s been on a lot of bands we’ve come to call our favourites. The glamour, wit and causticity of ‘I’d Rather Be High’, where Bowie chastises folk who “gossip ‘til their lips are bleeding, politics and all” beats Suede at a game we’d assumed he’d left them to get on with, whilst Damon Albarn would’ve loved to have written a character for The Great Escape as rounded as that of Valentine in ‘Valentine’s Day’ – “It’s in his tiny face, it’s in his scrawny hand, Valentine knows it all!” yells David with a smile on his face on a song that instantly positions itself amongst the LP’s highlights.
OK, so it’s not all brilliant. There’s a central section that sounds a little too calculated, over cooked, and sees The Next Day tread water in a manner that his records of the ’00s were all too content to do. Though it’s beyond passable, ‘I’d Rather Be High’ does in honesty partially suffer from these traits, but hey, it might work if you’re a big Suede fan. ‘Boss of Me’ though lacks anything instantly truly loveable, and could benefit from a final chorus being chopped off once the theme (“who’d have ever thought that a small town girl like you would be the boss of me?”) has already been hammered home. Those reviewers who’ve already commented on the record and called second single ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ one of its weaker moments baffle me somewhat however – what’s not great about its oddly romantic tale of “sexless and un-aroused” lovers, with Bowie hollering like he could live for another thousand years?. Still, it’s not the unequivocal highlight, I’d admit. It’s a little too steady on an album that works best when it seems either at its most carefree (the charming, breezy invitation to a boogie that is ‘Dancing Out In Space’), impassioned (the chants of “blood, blood, blood!” and violently clashing guitar solos of ‘How Does The Grass Grow?), or simply out on a limb.
Three numbers towards its close display The Next Day at its most daring, and subsequently breathtaking. The densest thing here is the utterly bizarre ‘If You Can See Me’, which races off at an unstoppable pace, detours via jarring stabs of synthesisers and ends abruptly on the kind of incongruous major chord that has one picturing a cast of dancers offering you their jazz hands. The stunning ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’ provides the album with one of its few moments of respite, but has Bowie emoting on lines like “there’ll come an assassin’s needle on a crowded train, I bet you feel so lonely you could die” with such might that you’ll be in the mood to do anything other than rest. Unless you kick back by sobbing like a bereaved child. The most startling moment though is the album-proper’s closing one; ‘Heat’ is astonishing, a depiction of bleakness as vivid as anything on Scott Walker’s Climate of Hunter, and amongst the most unnerving music I’ve heard Bowie put his voice to (‘Little Wonder’ included). As often seems to be the case here, when the music’s at its most impressive, Bowie’s lyrical game is raised along with it – the line “my father ran the prison, I can only love you by hating him more” is mused upon for the rest of the song like a mantra, sounding all the creepier with each repetition.
We’re then given a demonstration of why bonus tracks are called bonus tracks – the three that follow ‘Heat’, which is a perfect closer, are such a departure from the rest of The Next Day that it leaves you a little thrown. ‘So She’ is a gentle, foot tapping, acoustic strum-along with an almost lullaby feel, the instrumental ‘I’ll Take You There’ recalls Low but probably just because it’s a Bowie instrumental and so that’s only natural, and the big riffs, call and response choruses and glam-like stomps of ‘Plan’ seem to exist only to placate those who want him to remake Diamond Dogs over and over. They’re all fine. But part of me wishes I’d just been left in silence after ‘Heat’.
The Next Day hands nothing to you on a plate. If you want a sing-along chorus, you’re made to endure (and eventually enjoy) a threatening verse. If you want meaning from the lyrics, you can spend a while poring over them like sacred texts. But it’s a record he didn’t need to make, and in even releasing one at all – let alone a great one – there’s kind of a feeling that David Bowie has met us halfway. What we make of it is supposed to be up to us. Just enjoy putting the work in.