“Here I am. Not quite dying. My body left to rot on a hollow tree.”
– David Bowie, "The Next Day"
There is an uncomfortable feeling, sometimes, when a standing ovation occurs as a cultural legend walks onto a stage. It’s in the patronizing undertone of it. You see this regularly at award shows — it’s inevitable. Aging actor or musical icon gets introduced. Audience obliges. Cue the thunderous applause before anything is said. It may get emotional (“There were tears!”). Even if it’s meant to be heartfelt, it often has a sorrowful aftertaste. As if, at best, it’s a salute to long-forgotten previous works, and at worst, it’s an obligatory pat on the head for not being dead. The crowd eats it up. But the message is usually quite clear: Thank you for the person you used to be, oh, and don’t try to interest us in your current work, mate.
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When David Bowie stunned the popular music world on his 66th birthday with news that he would be releasing a new album — just a few weeks before its arrival — the general reflex was to cheer. It was, perhaps, unsurprising that a man famous for subverting expectations should surprise us, but it invited every risk of an empty standing ovation: high fives for showing up.
It had long been a pop culture maxim that Bowie’s creative days were over. There had been reports of a heart attack in the last decade and word that he had fears of singing again. Public appearances had been downgraded to retweeted photos of Bowie spotted walking in Soho wearing a scarf, or Bowie caught shopping, or Bowie doing something mundane. Accepted wisdom was that the former Thin White Duke had become a near-recluse, if not reduced to a fashionable Prince Philip to his model royalty wife. Outside his inner circle, no one expected new music from rock’s most memorable chameleon.
Of course, this is not to say Bowie had disappeared from the zeitgeist — quite the opposite. It’s hard to recall a period where there’s been more international interest fueled by media, filmmakers, the artistic community, fans, cultural institutions and almost everyone else. Everyone, that is, but Bowie.
In the past half decade there have been announcements of Bowie art exhibitions, Bowie photography shows, a Bowiefest film festival, tribute records, cover songs, movies using his image and a full tribute at the London Olympics closing ceremony. One writer went so far as to dedicate a book to a year in the '80s when, as a teenager, he actually wanted to be Bowie (ahem). But at the epicentre of all the attention, there was, until now, a celebrated legend that only served up silence.
And so, it was not hard to imagine the requisite standing ovation when Bowie decided to walk back onto the metaphorical stage with a new recording. But even a dutiful audience eventually stops clapping. Platitudes and nostalgia can only carry a new album so far. It’s risky business making an unanticipated comeback. A fast-moving culture requires an inspired effort to erase the predilection for a former incarnation. And to be fair, some of Bowie’s output in the preceding three decades has raised questions about whether a protracted hiatus was such a bad idea (“Never Let Me Down,” anyone?).
Why not live with the genius of “Life on Mars?” instead of sullying the legacy with newer, lesser fare? Turns out an obligatory standing ovation for his back catalogue would have been a disservice to Bowie, and to the audience. Because if his new album, The Next Day, has already proven anything, it’s that the erstwhile Ziggy Stardust is far from ready for a career eulogy. Rather, he’s intent on continuing to build on his reputation for innovation. Put simply, he’s gone and made one of his finest albums in decades.
The first notable impression when wrestling through The Next Day — and a wrestle, albeit a welcome one, it is — is the relentless fury involved. Beyond the introspective and beautifully melancholic first single, "Where Are We Now," the album is mostly dense, muscular, bleak and complex. It revels in dissonance. Bowie isn’t merely dipping his toes back into "art-rock;" he’s firing on all cylinders with in-your-face songs that suggest an energizing urgency.
The wrestle makes for a challenging listen at times: an eclectic selection of music that lies somewhere between the macabre themes and busy rock of Bowie’s '90s catalogue, the shameless commercial radio bait of the '80s and, mostly, the innovative post-punk songwriting of the late '70s. It’s a pointed collage of sound art. And the most rewarding aspect of The Next Day is exactly that: It’s not a passive pop record. Nor is there any suggestion of the mellowing of an elder statesman of rock.
Given the opportunity, Bowie has refused to adopt a “buy my easy-listening record” style as a way of capitalizing on an eager (and older) waiting audience. Rather, he seems intent on satisfying his philosophical interests and musical adventures with a dark-but-infectious creative soundscape that has been largely unheard since Scary Monsters in 1980 (with the notable exception of the very fine Heathen in 2002). The recording is simultaneously a nod to strong work of the past — many of these songs could be on any number of late '70s Bowie records — as well as a deft contemporary on alternative music. Much like Bowie himself at his best, the new effort is remarkable in that it seems to exist outside of any time period.
Credit for the album’s compelling sound may be due to the return of longtime producer Tony Visconti — the man behind the revolutionary '70s Berlin Trilogy of recordings. Visconti displays his familiar warm analog tone here, the omnipresence of his layers of electric and ambient guitars, and his facility for sonic claustrophobia reminiscent of Low or Heroes. There is a healthy dose of "group Bowie" vocals that made for the trademark sound on records like Lodger. And some of the musicians involved in The Next Day form a list of old names from Bowie’s past glory, including Tony Levin, Gail Ann Dorsey and Earl Slick.
But beyond the sound, the lyrics are largely delivered with a classic cryptic undertone. Typically confusing at times, profound at others. A general theme of death permeates the album, though not always Bowie’s own mortality. At one point, Bowie screams, “I can see you as a corpse. Hanging from a beam.” At another he intones, “Remember the dead. They were so great. Some of them.” The fascination with death, blood, masochism and celebrity is also in concert with longtime preoccupations in Bowie’s catalogue, but particularly current as well — as if the world has caught up with Bowie’s personal interests to provide him with fertile ground to release an au courant collection of art.
And yet there is a sense that the master is toying with us, as well as his own hallowed legacy. The self-effacing and self-promoting artwork, a play on the Heroes image, boldly defaces the cover of one of his greatest works. On the song “Valentine’s Day,” a sweet melody seduces us before we realize we’re deep into bleak and morbid imagery. Which one is it? Bowie goes both ways.
For the most part, the songs carry themselves in the strength of the writing. Tracks like "The Next Day" and "If You Can See Me" could easily be lifted off any of the Berlin Trilogy or from Scary Monsters. "I’d Rather Be High" is a moment of exuberant brilliance and a peak point on the album. It is single-handedly as good or better than most anything Bowie has recorded from the mid-'80s onward. It may be one of the catchiest pieces of his career.
There are some missteps on the record, too. Ironically, one of them is "The Stars Are Out Tonight," a song released in advance as the second single and featuring a "provocative" video with Tilda Swinton. This is on the weaker side of the batch, reminiscent of Bowie’s past flirtation with overt preppy pop-rock. It feels just uninspired enough that even Bowie doesn’t seem to believe his motives. But then, the meditation on stardom and celebrity culture suggests interesting questions from a man who has represented the heights of glam and the depths of mystery. Overall, the melodic misfires are few. And things are going well if this is the worst that Bowie can do.
The Next Day appears to be one of Bowie’s most personal affairs. It has been rare that he shares himself so boldly with the public in song. And yet, "Where Are We Now" can only be interpreted as a reflection on Bowie’s fertile period making music in Berlin decades ago. It is wistful and vulnerable. There is an honesty that sounds to be coming from the anointed superhero dealing with aging and physical erosion. It is quite unlike virtually anything we've heard from Bowie in the past.
The album ends with the very moving and apocalyptic "Heat." In it, Bowie ends off telling us, "I don’t know who I am." It’s like a warning and a wink to a world that has tried to deconstruct his elusive creative abandon for decades. He finishes with, "I am a liar. I am a seer."
Exactly. Now bring on the worthy ovation.
The Next Day — 7.9/10
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on Mar 12, 2013