by Jason Heller / A.V. Club
12th March 2013
For someone who has sung so lovingly of the apocalypse, David Bowie has survived. When it comes to his enduring list of accomplishments, though, what’s often discussed least is his voice. It’s his own fault. Bowie has never been—nor has he ever wanted to be—just a singer. Instead he’s used his bands, his trends, his personas, and even his body as both instrument and amplifier, message and medium. That’s always been a component of his appeal, if not the thrust of it: His virtuosic self-awareness celebrates and subverts pop music simultaneously, and with equal potency. What grounds him is the fact that his songs, regardless of how they’re dressed, remain impeccable. A prolific composer as well as an agile collaborator, he’s been able to navigate everything from the sparest ambience to the lushest bombast. He makes vacuums feel lavish; he threads melodies through mazes. But all of that rests on his voice.
Although Bowie has been stereotyped—seemingly at his own insistence—as a chameleon, his voice has evolved slowly over the years. In fact, it hasn’t changed much at all. His phrasing and diction belong to the school of crooners that predates him. His tone still evokes retro-futuristic textures, biomechanical melancholy, and a sine wave of warmth and cold. Those elements have deepened, but they’ve never grown feeble. Or anything less than sincere, in spite of his postmodern sheen.
The Next Day is Bowie’s first album in 10 years. It’s also the first he’s made since entering his 60s—and the first since having a heart attack in 2004. When it comes to his iconic, enveloping voice, seniority now augments sonority. It’s just one of the reasons why The Next Day is not just a strong comeback, but a stunning, resonant piece of expression—an intimate communiqué that whispers at the soul without denying the labyrinth of identity that once made Bowie a self-contained echo chamber. Rather than being hermetic, though, the naked, sculptural The Next Day demands undivided attention—when it’s being quiet as well as when it screams at the cosmos.
The album-opening title track wastes no time in renewing Bowie’s flirtation with the infinite. “They can’t get enough of that doomsday song,” he accuses with a mix of fascination and contempt, snapping like a soldier into a lockstep rhythm. The march spirals upward until the chorus, which plateaus with Bowie’s barking monotone and a shudder of guitar. That clenched-fist tension dissipates with “Dirty Boys,” a lurching, elephantine tune shrouded in squawking saxophone and a pall of juke-joint grease. In atmosphere it resembles the noir-addled decadence of Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing,” which Bowie co-wrote and later produced during the duo’s sojourn in Berlin in the ’70s. Bowie’s clipped cadence also closely mimics that of Pop’s on The Stooges’ track “Little Doll”—and the title is a hint that the whole thing may indeed be a deliberate paean to Pop.
Bowie’s backward glance, however, doesn’t reflect on the past. It refracts it. Using sleek, silvery hooks, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” harnesses the most obvious double meaning of the word “stars” as a way for Bowie to step outside himself—and then to play off his dual identity as earthbound spacemen and pop-culture icon. The result is a far more subtle examination of fame than, say, his 1975 hit “Fame.” Casting stars as vampires who feast on common people through the fangs of the media, he rages, “They burn you with their radiant smiles / And trap you with their beautiful eyes.” The hypocrisy is not lost on him—nor is the possibility that his own source of sustenance may someday dry up: “We will never be rid of these stars / But I hope they live forever.”
Death hovers everywhere on The Next Day, adding an ominous connotation to its title. On “Love Is Lost,” throbbing, robotic synths act as cryogenic devices keeping Bowie alive as he sings maliciously, his voice panicked and strangled, about “the voice of youth / the hour of dread.” Just under the surface, his own backup vocals boil away in a mad, garbled babble. “Valentine’s Day” lingers on mass murder, attempting to reconstruct the workings of a homicidal man—generically named Johnny—as he justifies a mass shooting. For someone who was once accused of harboring fascist sympathies, Bowie doesn’t shy away from eerily empathizing with a megalomaniac, albeit a fictional one, as he laces murderous inhumanity with sugary sha-la-las.
The album sustains a dizzying level of momentum, even as it shifts sharply in mood. “If You Can See Me” is a spasm of disco, contorted and accelerated so severely that it forces Bowie to split cryptic lines like “a drizzle of dark ashes” into slivers of syllables. “I’d Rather Be High” is a shuffling yet desperate lament spoken by a young World War II veteran, the glowing heroics of The Greatest Generation filtered anachronistically through today’s PTSD. Bowie’s voice sweeps and pleads through his character’s morbid daydreams as well as the song’s melodic twists and chilling anti-resolutions—a formula that’s sustained on the track’s sequel, “How Does The Grass Grow?” Lunging and sneering with just a dollop of doo-wop, he uses his vocals to examine the lust for war from multiple perspectives; instead of selling his story, as many singer-songwriters assume they must, he becomes a shell-shocked spectator of his own narrative. The squeal and elasticity of the music backing him—not to mention the gorgeous sprawl of the middle section—only accentuates the multiplicity.
Even the disc’s two lackluster tracks, the energetic but tepid “Boss Of Me” and the elegantly empty “Dancing Out In Space,” serve a purpose, granting a mid-disc intermission from the surrounding intensity. “Dancing” is far better than “Boss”—but when Bowie tells tales of space, a territory he all but owns, it’s expected that some semblance of an odyssey will be embarked upon. Instead, “Dancing” is a pretty, lightweight wisp of atmosphere that succeeds in cleansing the palate, not realigning the senses.
The Next Day’s final three songs, though, are as superb as they are indelible. As with “Dirty Boys,” Bowie uses “(You Will) Set The World On Fire” to relive a moment in music history that he was party to—in lieu of the glam era, though, he sings of the ’60s folk scene where the young David Jones, before he changed his name to Bowie, cut his teeth. Perversely, Bowie weaves his fictionalized tale of a humble folkie with galaxy-sized ambitions by going straight for the throat; massive, slamming, and bombastic, it’s the disc’s hardest-rocking song, as well as one of its catchiest.
“You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” contains the album’s highest concentration of Easter eggs: In addition to the reference to Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” in the song’s name, it ends with the same haunting drumbeat that opens “Five Years,” the first track of his 1972 masterpiece, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Sandwiched between is a spacious, jangling paean to urban claustrophobia and isolation. On record and in the film The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie has assumed the role of alien—but here he portrays everyone as aliens, drifting through urban landscapes that might as well be other planets. Pushed to the edge of anguish, he weeps, implores, and commands in the same multidimensional timbre. When he sings, “I can see you as a corpse / hanging from a beam,” it’s as if he’s looking at himself.
That out-of-body reflection hits its apotheosis on the album’s closing track, “Heat.” Radically unlike any other song on The Next Day, it somehow manages to sum them all up, a point of punctuation that creeps spiderlike up the spine. In a voice as glossy as black glass, Bowie intones the refrain, “And I tell myself / I don’t know who I am.” In doing so, he throws his newfound psychic orientation to the wind, letting his many facets detach and scatter. In a recent interview with The Times, Tony Visconti—producer of The Next Day as well as many Bowie classics—had this to say of “Heat”: “The lyrics are so bleak, I asked [Bowie] what he was talking about. ‘Oh, it’s not about me,’ he said. None of these songs are. He’s an observer.” What Visconti doesn’t mention is that Bowie says more about himself when he sings about anything but.
The most intimate and sentimental song on The Next Day is “Where Are We Now?” It’s also the first taste of the album Bowie gave his fans, a savvy maneuver in a career made of them. Rarely has Bowie run so hot and cold at the same time. “As long as there’s sun / As long as there’s rain,” he wails with a catch in his throat the size of his heart. A sparse cirrus of instrumentation bobs above, an earthier cousin of the trippy, inverted version of the breakdown of “Space Oddity.” The weightlessness is an illusion. Stitched together from scraps of memory of Bowie’s Berlin period—much in the way that The Next Day’s cover is pop-art reworking of that period’s masterpiece, 1977’s “Heroes”—“Where Are We Now?” brings closure to his career by ripping it open.
As a whole, The Next Day does the same thing. Having faced death, and still resigned to never touring again, Bowie refuses to produce a typical, elderly rock star’s meditation on the hereafter. Instead, he gives time a cigarette. The Next Day isn’t great simply because it’s the return of Bowie. It’s great because it’s the return of Bowie’s voice: rich, delicate, smoky, wise. And, yes, shaded with the first expectant blush of mortality.