by Mayer Nissim / Digital Spy
6th March 2013
At first we didn’t quite believe it. Brand. New. David Bowie. And rather than send us gaga with endless teasing, tedious tweets, Instagram pics, ten-second promo videos and the like, Britain’s best ever popstar returned with a whole actual flipping song. A nation of fanboys (us included) simultaneously wet their pants. In all the excitement, it was hard to get a sober opinion on ‘Where Are We Now?’. We most definitely liked it, but had some concerns that the rest of the album would share its stately, languid, middle-aged feel. Nice as the track was, it hardly blew away the good-but-mainly-unremarkable Heathen and Reality. Would the album just be more of the same? We needn’t have worried.
Straight out of the traps comes the title track, a forceful riposte to questions of Bowie’s mortality (“Here I am/ Not quite dying!”). Bowie growls his way through the words like he’s still on the Diamond Dogs tour, while Gerry Leonard’s squalling guitar pummels your consciousness into submission. The pace drops for ‘Dirty Boys’, but the intensity is ratched up a notch, if anything. The free jazzy sax seems transplanted from The Stooges’ Fun House more than Bowie’s own honking on stuff like ‘Neuköln’.
Next up is should-have-been-the-lead-single ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’. The Most Enduringly Famous English Superstar Alive (sorry, Mick ‘n’ Macca) offers a more detached treatise on ‘Fame’ (“They watch us from behind their shades/ Brigitte, Jack and Kate and Brad / From behind their tinted window stretch/ Gleaming like blackened sunshine”). It’s no hyperbole to call it his best single since oooh, ‘Modern Love’. At least. Elsewhere, by the sounds of things, David Bowie has spent much of the last lost decade listening to… David Bowie.
There’s hippie Beatles-pop ’60s Bowie on ‘Valentine’s Day’. Earthling jungle beats on ‘If You Can See Me’, with a voice treatment not a million miles away from 1. Outside‘s laughably barmy little lost girl Baby Grace Blue. There’s a classic ’80s Bowie power pop chorus on ‘(You Will) Set The World on Fire’. His best ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’/’Drive-In Saturday’ torch balladry on ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’.
Even if there’s a teensy bit of sag at the start of side two, David’s always got the odd melodic quirk or standout line that more than keeps your focus (“I’d rather be dead / Or out of my head / Than training these guns/ On those men in the sand”). The Next Day is an undeniable triumph, and while that might seem obvious now, it was far from a given. Who really knew for sure that Bowie could produce a great album again? Tonight and Never Let Me Down proved that he’s perfectly capable of making a right stinker.
Like Noel Gallagher and Iggy Pop have said – plenty of “returning” stars “just go and twiddle around on stage to make a bunch of f**king money”. Why take the risk of public scorn and endless bleating of “it’s not as good as your old stuff”? It’s because great art is about taking those risks. David Bowie. Not quite dying – a living, breathing artist, making living, breathing art. Welcome back.