by Benji Taylor / What Culture
15th March 2013
Release date: Monday 11th March 2013
On David Bowie’s sixty sixth birthday the world was thunderstruck to learn that rock music’s greatest chameleon had been secretly working on an album for the past three years. The mournful nostalgia of Where Are We Now? broke the silence of a decade’s worth of apparent inactivity: The Thin White Duke, thought to be content enjoying his retirement away from the shimmer of the spotlight, was back.
Here we’ll delve into and analyse each song on an album that is arguably one of the greatest comebacks in the history of rock music: bursting with lyrical artistry, simultaneously inventive and self-referential, and brazenly vibrant.
1. The Next Day
The opener, a scorching rock number, sets the tone for the album, and shows that the release of Where Are We Now? as the lead single was a clever misdirection. The barrage of trebly dissonant guitars and screeching riffs don’t sound too far removed from Beauty And The Beast, the opening track from Heroes. It’s a stormer of a first track, and a million miles away from the swirling introspection of Where Are We Now?
Bowie wails and at times approaches hysteria as his dark lyrics, which according to producer Tony Visconti reference a late medieval period European tyrant, allude to the hypocrisy of the church (“They can work with Satan while they dress like the saints/ They know that god exists for the devil told them so”) and recall the bleak Orwellian post-apocalyptic imagery used on Diamond Dogs (“He drags them to the river‘s bank in the cart/ Their soggy paper bodies wash ashore in the dark…”)
Things build to a frenetic crescendo: a maelstrom of blazing guitars and pulsating beats, as Bowie’s lyrics invoke the sense of a man coming to terms with his own mortality (“Here I am not quite dying my body to left to rot in a hollow tree”), a theme that crops up continually on the album.
2. Dirty Boys
The bluesy second track is set against the backdrop of Steve Elson’s sleazy baritone sax sound, which comes as a welcome refrain after the muscle and might of the opener.
The song pays tribute to Bowie’s past adolescent sexual intemperance; musically it would not have sounded amiss on Young Americans, whilst the title seems to be a deliberate nod to the 1979 lead single from Lodger: Boys Keep Swinging.
Discordant guitars writhe against the filthy sax while Bowie talks about getting his kicks at the Victoria Park Finchley Fair. It’s awesome stuff.
3. The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
Track three brings us another classic Bowie rocker which recalls his Scary Monsters period, and finds The Duke reflecting on the shifting self-consuming nature of celebrity and fame. It’s one of many tracks which showcase Visconti‘s slick production skills as he expertly melds wailing guitars and sweeping strings with a variety of other orchestral flourishes.
Thematically it’s less opaque than traditional Bowie, intertwining his musings on the stratosphere and celebrity by using the cosmos as a metaphor for the blinding nature of fame and notoriety. It’s one of the more anthemic tracks on the album finding Bowie at his most self-assured.
Floria Sigismondi’s video for the track is also a fantastically striking piece of work that provides the perfect visualisation of the themes of the song and, more importantly, the definitive proof that Tilda Swinton and David Bowie are not in fact the same person!
RATING: 4.75/ 5
4. Love Is Lost
This tense 70s Krautrock slow-rocker unites Gail Ann Dorsey’s throbbing bass, Gerry Leonard’s angry guitars and Visconti‘s pulsing organ with Bowie’s despairing vocals.
Visconti revealed that the song charts the loss of innocence of a young girl as she leaves her youth behind.
It’s a haunting piece of music, with vividly desolate lyrics recounting the girl’s transition to adulthood: “Your house is new and even your eyes are new/ Your maid is too and your accent too/ But your fear is as old as the world…”
5. Where Are We Now?
Lead single Where Are We Now? is one of only three ‘ballads’ on the album, a melancholic reflection on his Berlin days told from the rare perspective of Bowie himself.
The song’s lush and gorgeous soundscape comprises twinkling keys, swirling synths and simple guitar chords set against Bowie’s gentle and meditative vocal. He dimly recalls moments of his past in Berlin; it’s Bowie at his most heartfelt, stripped bare of the personas he so often clothes himself in to channel his music. Just before the two minute mark his voice cracks at the end of the phrase “fingers are crossed just in case…” invoking the touching image of Bowie longingly peering through the clouded veil of his past, a “man lost in time.”
A future classic- simultaneously life affirming and tear provoking.
6. Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day is, on the surface at least, the album’s most pop-fuelled moment, taking the beat of 1972 track The Jean Genie and marrying it with the glam-rock sounds that characterised much of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It’s a track that, come the release of Suede‘s Bloodsports on Monday 18th March, Brett Anderson may well be wishing he’d wrote.
The enthralling pop melody conceals a dark subject matter- that of a planned massed murder, though it’s told in Bowie’s traditionally opaque manner and hidden beneath guitarist Earl Slick‘s rousing angular guitar riffs.
7. If You Can See Me
Track seven is the strangest and most experimental song on The Next Day, featuring a skittering drum and bass arrangement and frequent tempo changes. Bowie spouts wrathful wraith-like vocals seemingly from the perspective of an angry god (“I will take your lands and all that lays beneath/ The dust of cold flowers/ The prison of dark of ashes”), his commands punctuated by screeching keyboards and Gail Ann Dorsey’s spectre-like wails.
It’s unsettling, addictive but invariably awesome.
8. I’d Rather Be High
Track eight again finds Bowie inhabiting the body of a youngster, this time a youthful battle-weary soldier who sings “I’d rather be dead, or out of my head, than training my gun on those men in the sand…”
It’s a swirling psychedelic anti-war rock song ring-fenced by searing guitar riffs that, though it name-checks Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, may well be destined to be become a staple song for squaddies the world over. “I’m seventeen my looks can prove it/ I’m so afraid that I will lose it…” again shows Bowie’s penchant for lyrics detailing youth and the onset of age.
9. Boss Of Me
The saxophone rears its sleazy head again on Boss Of Me, which of all the tracks on The Next Day gravitates most towards funk and soul.
The song boasts a fantastic shifting bass line as Bowie gives a cheeky ironic nod to supermodel wife Iman when singing “who’d have ever dreamed that a small-town girl like you would be the boss of me…”
10. Dancing Out In Space
The beat and tempo recall Let’s Dance’s 1983 single Modern Love though this beat is coupled with a deliberately detached and dispassionate vocal from The Starman.
The esoteric lyrics equate dancing with love as he sings “Something like religion dancing face to face/ Something like a drowning dancing out in space…”
11. Where Does The Grass Grow?
Bowie samples the melody from The Shadows’ 1960 hit Apache on track eleven but transposes it onto an indie-electro soundscape within which he again references war: “Remember the dead/ They were so great/ Some of them”.
12. (You Will) Set The World On Fire
Another raucous rocker with an opening riff that’s frighteningly reminiscent of The White Stripes and that makes you sad to think that Bowie said he will not tour this album; it would be a live stormer.
The song name-checks several of Bowie’s influences from the 60s: Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan, celebrating them with the praise “Kennedy would kill for the lines that you’ve written…” It’s the safest song on an album that is characterised by many unusual turns.
13. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die
A highlight on a record boasting some colossal tracks, this is the song showcasing Bowie’s finest vocal that should silence those who doubted that his voice had not survived the years.
Epic sweeping strings and a stirring piano arrangement support Bowie’s anguished croon in a track that could one day be counted amongst his best. Bowie’s voice appears to nudge a spy or assassin towards an ominous fate amidst some of the album’s most impassioned imagery: “Buildings crammed with people, landscape filled with wrath/ Grey concrete city, rain has wet the street/ I want to see you clearly before you close the door/ A room of bloody history, you made sure of that…”
Bowie has never hid his love for Scott Walker, citing him as idol since his formative years (Bowie produced Walker documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man).
That love is apparent on album closer Heat. It’s a haunting hymn that references the ravages of a doomed father-son relationship that you can imagine Paul Thomas Anderson using on a future movie. “I can only love you by hating him more/ That’s not the truth- it’s too big a word…”
It recalls the the dystopian gloom of Diamond Dogs’ We are the Dead and serves as a fantastic, if unsettling, swansong for the album.
The Next Day is a stylish, bold, fiercely intelligent record that not only recalls and references the glories of Bowie’s expansive musical past but also matches them (something cleverly conveyed by the album artwork). It’s also a record that yields the mysteries of its lyrical artistry further with repeated listening.
We should thank god-or perhaps the devil- that The Thin White Duke is back…