April 27, 2016

David Bowie: The Next Day (2013)

The Next Day was a hell of a surprise back in 2013, with David Bowie spontaneously coming out of apparent retirement after a heart attack ended his 2004 world tour. The album's lead single was simply released without fanfare in January 2013, with no advance publicity. It was simply a case of revealing a new song out of nowhere, and then a new album soon afterwards. The Next Day represented yet another phase in Bowie's career, with another seeming change in identity: now an intensely private performer, Bowie released an album of new songs but did not appear in interviews or undertake any tours. Even the album's cover seemed to suggest a new reclusive identity: the original cover art to his legendary album Heroes with Bowie's face obscured by a white square. It seemed - it still does - a striking erasure of his popular identity, leaving just the music behind for his fans to enjoy.

I suspect history will obscure The Next Day to a large degree in favour of his 2016 follow-up, Blackstar, which was released just days before his death from cancer. I think that will prove a pity, since The Next Day is an unexpectedly strong album with so many exceptional songs to recommend.

It begins with the title track: "The Next Day" is a very loose, energetic opening track, boasting seemingly defiant lyrics like "Here I am, not quite dying" that immediately bring to mind Bowie's own apparent return from de facto retirement. Closer examination - as well as a controversial music video - shows it's more likely a song attacking Christianity. Of course it is often difficult to tell with Bowie: his lyrics are more often than not so abstracted and deliberately jumbled-together that in many cases it's a struggle to identify a clear message at all. We only get images and ideas to build by ourselves. "The Next Day" is a great example, and a great song.

"Dirty Boys" slow, rough mix of saxophone and guitars brings to mind a lot of different Bowie songs from albums past. There is a strong nostalgic element to this album in many respects, either because as fans we had been starved of new material or - and I think more likely - there is a very relaxed, old-fashioned feel to Bowie's songs here. I believe this album was produced and released in the manner that it was simply because he wanted to write and perform again. It's a belief I think is given further evidence with "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)", which feels like a classic David Bowie rock number whose release got delayed by 35 years, and the slower but still traditional "Love is Lost".

"Where Are We Now?" marks another highlight for the album. It is a slow, seemingly fragile ballad, filled with nostalgia and sadness. This was the first single released for the album, and not only gave Bowie his biggest UK hit since "Absolute Beginners" in 1986 but also making him an artist with a Top 10 hit in every decade from the 1960s to the 2010s. This is a beautiful and haunting song: David Bowie has never sounded older or more heartbreakingly regretful. It is The Next Day's best song by some distance.

The middle section of the album gets a little ordinary compared to its beginning. "Valentine's Day" starts a little generic but just gets stronger and stronger as it goes. "If You Can See Me" is a wonderful chaotic number that brings to mind some of Bowie's best 1990s work like Earthling. "I'd Rather Be High", on the other hand, almost feels Beatles-inspired. "Boss of Me" echoes Bowie's own Black Tie White Noise. "Dancing Out In Space" is upbeat but fairly generic. There is not a bad song here, but at the same time there is not too much to rise above the pack.

"How Does the Grass Grow?" is a striking surprise, lifting a riff from the Shadows' "Apache" as part of its chorus. It has a strong sense of energy that really lifts the album back up. It also sees Bowie stretching his voice the most in the album so far. It is a strong, muscular song. That strength drives on through "(You Will) Set the World on Fire": a great angry, pounding number.

"You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" slows right down at just the right point of the album, and provides a powerful slow-build sort of anthem. It's slightly deceptive, because after "(You Will) Set the World of Fire" it feels like a break, but on listening carefully it is packed with just about as much rage and hate. It's powerful stuff. The album winds to a close with "Heat", which falls just short of being the epic climax that it feels Bowie wanted the song to be. It's a strong song, and a good conclusion, but it could have been better.

In the end The Next Day is a strong and immensely enjoyable penultimate album for David Bowie. It kicked his music back into action with one eye fixed firmly on the past and blending together musical styles from several of his earlier works. It boast three absolute stand-outs - "The Next Day", "Where Are We Now?", and "How Does the Grass Grow?" - and the remainder of the album is never anything less than solid. It's well worth adding to your collection.

Average Score: 3.9

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