by Peter Tabakis / Pretty Much Amazing
So this is what it’s like to be astonished by a new David Bowie album. Though I was living and breathing way back in the fall of 1980, I was much too young to have appreciated the release of Bowie’s last masterwork Scary Monsters. The thirty-plus years that separate Scary Monsters from his latest release haven’t exactly found Bowie in creative exile, wandering in the desert. In this time, he’s put out a handful of terrific singles and two very respectable albums – but “respectable” is faint praise for a giant who, during his heyday, created countless classic singles and nine unimpeachable albums in breathless succession over the course of ten years or so.
The enthusiasm that first followed the surprise announcement of The Next Day a few weeks ago (!), on Bowie’s 66th birthday, seemed more like dutiful goodwill afforded to a beloved artist rather than realistic hopes for a great album. The Next Day turns out not only to clear the low bar we tend to set for rock’s elder statesmen: Bowie’s new album rivals Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft” as a triumph that requires no qualification or apology for age.
For “Love and Theft”, Dylan reshaped himself into the pre-rock Song and Dance Man he always claimed to be and delivered some of the finest music of his career. Bowie – no longer the chameleon – proudly returns in a unity of his many personas, as if while orbiting the Earth in suspended animation they had melded into a single being. This is no “comeback” for David Bowie. Rather, it is a magnificent continuation: an ellipsis connects his nine earlier masterpieces to his tenth, The Next Day.
As Ann Powers recently noted in a typically insightful piece for NPR, Bowie may have receded from the spotlight in the last decade, but his influence on popular music has been as potent and wide-ranging as ever. The Next Day emphasizes the contrast between master and mimic. Bowie doesn’t yet need an understudy.
The album’s many playful, reflexive winks at the Bowie mythos (from the album artwork on down to the “Five Years” coda on “You Feel So Lonely You Can Die”) shouldn’t distract from these fourteen superb songs, some of the most tuneful – and in some cases, daring – of his career. “Where Are We Now?,” a lovely and contemplative homecoming to the Berlin of Bowie’s celebrated triptych, was an intentional curveball-choice for a lead single. It’s not The Next Day’s only ballad. The album slows to a finish with plastic-soul bombast (“You Feel So Lonely You Can Die”) and a stunning dirge (“Heat”). But the vast majority of The Next Day is vibrant, even delirious, roaring with Bowie’s heaviest rockers and teeming with guitar hooks that just beg to be lovingly re-appropriated by James Murphy.
Longtime producer Tony Visconti and the expert session musicians who brought vitality toHeathen (2002) and Reality (2003) return to inject The Next Day with joyful noise. Bowie’s lyrics at times darken the album’s sonic radiance: with a medieval tyrant (“The Next Day”), a school gunman (“Valentine’s Day”), and the unwilling participants of war (“I’d Rather Be High” and “How Does the Grass Grow”). “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” casts a gimlet eye on the early-sixties Greenwich Village music scene. Totalitarian angst practically suffocates “If You Can See Me.”
“Here I am, not quite dying,” Bowie sing-growls on the riotous title track, which opens the album by kicking down the front door. The Next Day burns and raves with such miraculous moments. A train of elephants seems to march alongside a fat sax lick through the bluesy “Dirty Boys,” until the song turns feather-light during its chorus. The incessant, anxious ostinato of “Love is Lost” breaks into the slow swoon of “Where Are We Now?,” just as three minutes of whirling cacophony resolves with a glorious major chord on “If You Can See Me.” The mournful, psychedelic interplay between the guitar and synth on “Dancing Out in Space” could have been ripped straight from one of the Berlin albums. Two of Bowie’s oldest obsessions – the cosmos and celebrity – collide onThe Next Day’s resplendent standout “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).”
The Next Day feels like David Bowie’s swan song (again, that cover art). It almost certainly will be if he waits another decade to record a follow-up. Visconti claims there’s more to come, and soon. What an exit it would be, though. The Folkie, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Melancholy Experimentalist, the Rock God, the Goblin King, and the Elder Statesman all finally converged on a single man. Cue a reading from Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” [A]