by Simon Cosyns / The Sun
8th March 2013
David Bowie, one of the city’s adopted sons, has transported himself back in time. (He once came from outer space as Ziggy Stardust so why not perfect time travel too?) He visits smoky, candlelit clubs like The Bitter End on Bleecker Street and the Gaslight Cafe on MacDougal Street.
He encounters impassioned protest singers Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Phil Ochs and listens to their cries against oppression, prejudice and greed.
He overhears big-bearded troubadour Dave Van Ronk talking to a skinny kid called Bobby Dylan.
“She’s the next real thing,” says Van Ronk about a young black girl with guitar in hand and fire in her belly.
Wind forward to 2013 and we find this scene vividly portrayed in a new Bowie song called (You Will) Set The World On Fire.
It’s an angry yet life-affirming rocker — very different from the folky Hunky Dory song that famously described Dylan and his “voice like sand and glue”.
Yes, this new, energised David Bowie is the same man often mentioned over the past few years next to the words “recluse” and “dark place” and “retirement”.
His Greenwich Village song is one of 14 (17 if you count the extra tracks on the deluxe edition) on his weird, edgy, dark, sprawling, magnificent comeback album The Next Day.
Never mind the Five Years of his Ziggy anthem in the Seventies, it’s been nearly nine years since Bowie went straight into career oblivion after a heart attack at a German music festival.
The silence had been deafening, the vague health reports troubling. Then on January 8 this year, Bowie’s 66th birthday, a 5am announcement revealed he was emerging from the shadows with his 24th studio album.
The shock and joy at this news was further enhanced by the bombshell artwork by Brit graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook. Taking the iconic cover of Heroes, he crossed out the title and obliterated Bowie’s face with a simple white square.
So why is the iconic singer defacing his hallowed past? I believe he’s saying: “I’m back. I’m relevant. I have a future. Don’t wallow in what went before.”
The secrecy around the project has been breathtaking. If you consider the huge list of credits accompanying the album’s illuminating red, yellow and blue lyric sheet, it’s little short of a miracle that somebody, somewhere didn’t blurt out: “Guess what? I’ve been working on a new Bowie album!”
Just to hear his familiar mannered, expressive vocal delivery in great shape is very special but the devil is in the detail of this lyric-heavy, musically rich album.
Many of its themes are ominous and unsettling with Bowie confronting his mortality by raging against the dying of the light. He shields himself from an uncertain world in some songs yet appears vulnerable to it in others.
But you also sense this remarkable artist’s unbridled joy at being back in the studio, doing what he does best, surrounded by an imaginative band and long-standing brother-in-arms, producer Tony Visconti.
A clue to Bowie’s defiant mood comes at the very start with the machine gun assault of the nightmarish title track, three minutes and 28 seconds that emphatically blow away the cobwebs.
The standout line is a stirring riposte to the doubters: “Here I am, not quite dying,” he repeatedly shouts with genuine venom. An action-packed scene from some cruel past or future world ensues: “They haul him through mud and they chant for his death/Drag him to the feet of the purple-headed priest.” Scary stuff.
Bowie’s not attempting to recreate past triumphs here but there are shades of Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Station To Station, the Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger, Scary Monsters and more recent work.
(You Will) Set The World On Fire is not the only song informed by geographical locations from Bowie world. He climbed aboard the time machine again for first single, the haunting Where Are We Now?, comfortably the most introspective track.
Here, he’s strolling through a Berlin still divided by the wall, re-living the strange, heady days when he produced his visionary, Krautrock-influenced trilogy with Brian Eno in the late Seventies.
The song is tinged with sadness because that was then and this is now. Bowie sounds defeated by his advancing years but clings to the fact that life on earth remains guided by powerful elements… the sun, the rain and fire. It’s a beautifully orchestrated song that grows in stature with every listen.
Evocative place names come thick and fast without him sounding too much like a singing A to Z. Potsdammer Platz, Nurnberger Strasse, the KaDaWe (department store), Bose Brucke.
Another location can be found on the sleazy, sexy, sax-driven Dirty Boys which dwells on the earthy pleasures of wayward adolescence. The protagonists are in London, heading to “Finchley Fair”.
“I will buy you a feather hat/I will steal you a cricket bat/Smash some windows, make a noise.” The singer is pining for the old country and lost youth but doing it with a smile on his face. To quote a famous song, “boys keep swinging”.
Next we’re back in the States, only this time it’s the West Coast and Tinseltown. Bowie picks up a familiar theme from his back catalogue; the cult of celebrity.
Where Ziggy Stardust and Fame (from Young Americans) went previously comes The Next Day’s second single The Stars (Are Out Tonight), one of several efforts that has plenty going on behind a trash-pop veneer.
It’s probably too prosaic to guess the surnames in these lines: “They watch us from behind their shades/Brigitte, Jack and Kate and Brad/From behind their tinted window stretch.” (But I’m sure you’ll try.) Bowie, one of the most famous people on the planet, has been so low-key this past decade that now it appears he can look in from the outside on the lurid trappings of fame and its damaging effect on the soul.
As The Next Day progresses, listeners are caught in a blizzard of thought and expression. Next up is one of this breathless album’s most effective pieces of writing and another change of tack.
Coming-of-age song Love Is Lost employs a rhythmic, metallic, industrial Nine Inch Nails-style soundscape for a nostalgic and desolate reflection on innocence and the arrival of grinding adult responsibilities. “Say goodbye to the thrills of life,” it suggests to the 22-year-old female central character.
Valentine’s Day bears one of the album’s sweetest melodies but the subject matter remains dark. It depicts a character with a “scrawny hand” and “icy heart” and Visconti has suggested it was inspired by a high school shooter.
Maybe Bowie was affected by the horrific Valentine’s Day rampage at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb on February 14, 2008, when six people died (including the perpetrator) and 21 were injured.
The angular If You Can See Me is a tough listen. It finds Bowie duetting with band member Gail Ann Dorsey over scuzzy riffs on an abstract tale bristling with paranoia.
Dorsey’s also prominent on How Does The Grass Grow?, a track remarkable for the pair’s lairy repetition of the theme from The Shadows’ 1960 instrumental No1 smash Apache.
The loping gait of the Britpop-ish I’d Rather Be High serves as a highlight while tracing the story of a 17-year-old squaddie posted to war-torn Egypt. It’s a song for our times of course. For Egypt, think Afghanistan.
Bowie recalls the sentiment of Pink Floyd’s fierce anti-war campaigner Roger Waters when he derides “generals full of sh*t”.
The poor young boy, for that’s who the main character is, is left to sing: “I’d rather be dead/Or out of my head/Than training these guns on those men in the sand.”
The baritone sax of Dirty Boys returns with a vengeance on Boss Of Me, courtesy of exuberant band member Steve Elson.
It’s not one of The Next Day’s most appealing songs but the pleasing main line “Who’d have thought a small-town girl like you would be the boss of me?” reminds me of a Dylan song from the Eighties… “What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?”
Dancing Out In Space is probably the album’s most throwaway track. It’s fun though with “dancing” replacing Major Tom’s “floating in a most peculiar way” all those moons ago on Space Oddity.
Here, Bowie reveals his literary credentials with a shout-out to Georges Rodenbach, a 19th Century Belgian poet and novelist.
Then on the compelling final track Heat, there’s a mention of avant-garde Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, who is remembered for his shocking ritual suicide.
The song is loaded with self-doubt and serves as a telling pay-off to the album. Bowie’s vulnerable side is acutely revealed. “And I tell myself I don’t know who I am,” he intones over ambient strings.
I’ve saved one track for last because, in my mind, it’s the best. In fact, it’s one of the best songs from Bowie’s 24 studio albums. (Although, I’ve always thought, the genius Ziggy closing track Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide takes some beating.) You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, which clearly references Elvis’s devastating refrain from Heartbreak Hotel, bears a towering vocal performance carried along by heavenly harmonies and a killer tune.
The song is a great melodramatic ballad summoning every last drop of effort from its creator. It’s black at heart, like so many of these new additions to the Bowie cannon, but every fan across the globe will rejoice at the way he brings it home in style.
Many doubted Bowie had it in him to return at all but there we have it… a new, compelling, fiercely original album from one of the great British artists of the past 50 years.
And one thing’s for certain. He’s still a hero, not just for one day but for The Next Day “and the next and another day”.