Rather than reinventing Bowie, it absorbs his past and moves it on, hungry for more
Just what is it you people want from David Bowie? Whatever it is, you want it hard, and it’s not just the 10 dormant years in which every slight tremor of activity has been pounced on and devoured that charges his return with rapture of religious proportions. Bowie remains special, apart; he’s retained his otherworldly artistic mystique (even after Extras). So now he’s descended to our plane once more (and you can trust he wouldn’t bother if he didn’t feel he had to) what do you need from pop’s arch shapeshifter on his 26th album? Innovation, revelation, comfort?
There’s a certain tone sometimes expected of artists of a certain… venerableness. Blame Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin, whose American Recordings series set the model for the memento mori album, one which looks approaching mortality dead in the eye before casting a wise, rueful eye over the reflective artist life’s work.
You might have expected, from the stately wistfulness with which ‘Where Are We Now?’ – released on the eve of Bowie’s 66th birthday – took a nostalgic journey from Potsdamer Platz through the Berlin that bore Bowie’s crowning artistic achievements, that the Thin White Duke had come to that crossroad. Nuh-uh. As not just the title, but the sleeve art of ‘The Next Day’, with its gleeful, meme-tastic defacement of ‘Heroes’ suggests, this is a record that while happy to acknowledge Bowie’s titanic past and borrow, magpie-like from it, is anything but navel-gazing, self-referential or reverent, instead leaping forward with a restless energy to tomorrow.
The choice of that particular sleeve, and the most constant sonic reference, ‘Scary Monsters And Super Creeps’ is significant. ‘Heroes’ is Bowie’s masterpiece/benchmark/millstone, and similarly, he must be heartily sick of every album from the ‘90s onwards being reviewed as “the best since ‘Scary Monsters’”. Rather than run from that, he’s meeting his legacy head-on and playing chicken with it.
It’s the nerve-singeing vibrancy of these songs that strike you hardest; there’s no sense as with ‘Outside’ or ‘Earthling’, that it’s the need for another radical reinvention that’s pulled Bowie back to music-making. It’s more that these songs feel like stories that insisted on being told, bright and aggressive and poppy.
The title track sets the tone, a cocky strut seething with rage, whose romping, stomping rhythm and squealing guitar licks are reminiscent of ‘Beauty And The Beast’, the opening track from ‘Heroes’. It boils with lust, paranoia and megalomania, the rant of an unnamed prophet or charlatan on the run from priests and the populace. It’s another installment in Bowie’s longstanding fascination with conflicted, powerful figures from history, and it builds and builds almost unbearably towards a maniacal, martyred, shouted chorus: “Here I am, not quite dying/My body left to rot in a hollow tree.”
The in-your-face, teeth-at-your-throat pace rarely slacks. The only track other than ‘Where Are We Now?’ that strikes an even vaguely nostalgic tone is ‘Dirty Boys’. With its obvious nod to ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ in the title and lyrical reference to The Animals’ ‘Tobacco Road’, it seems to hark back to a wilder youth. As with ‘Where Are We Now?’, though, it’d be unwise to assume that the subject is wholly, or even mainly, Bowie – a man rarely interested in revealing his ‘true’ self (producer Tony Visconti has assured fans that “none of these songs are about him”).
Instead, he returns to another favourite theme, the shifting, shiny surfaces of stardom, a Bowie hobbyhorse right from the days of from Major Tom and his shirts. The reflections on ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ on the vampiric nature of celebrity might seem asinine until you remember that they come from a man who can barely step outside his door without breaking the internet under the weight of speculation as to when he’s going to die. Actually imagine that state of affairs being your life for a moment, and lines like “They are the stars, they’re dying for you but I hope they live forever/They burn you with their radiant smiles and trap you with their beautiful eyes” take a different hue. Musically, it’s supremely polished AOR, glistening keys, steadily chugging rhythm guitar, comfortably ambling bass, sweeping strings; the song equivalent of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, glossy, detached and unsettling.
Similarly sweet-sounding and sick-hearted is ‘Valentine’s Day’, probing the psychology of a young mass shooter with a glammy, sashaying, handclapping bobby-dazzler of a tune that has the wide-eyedness of ‘Starman’, the elegiac beauty of ‘All The Young Dudes’. ‘You Will Set The World On Fire’ whisks you to Greenwich Village in the ‘60s, where Bowie rewrites pop history by imagining a young folk singer with genuinely world-changing powers, who fulfils all the promise of the protest songs a young Bowie so admired (you could view it as a very late follow-up to 1971’s ‘Song For Bob Dylan’).
‘Love Is Lost’ evokes struggle on a more personal level, with a harsh, late-’70s robo-funk sound, while ‘Boss Of Me’ is an edgily devil with a cheekily bubbling sax line and wryly romantic lyrics, but in the main, the focus is on definite, specific stories. Perhaps the most intriguing of all are hidden within ‘Heat’ and ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’. The former is heavy with the funereal atmospherics of the Berlin trilogy instrumentals, Bowie adopting a distant, lugubrious, Thin White Duke-style tone, raving deliriously “I don’t know who I am”. On the latter, a waltz-time piano ballad, the atmosphere zings with paranoia, Bowie casting unpleasant shadows of the future for an informer in unspecified times of oppression. “Lovers thrown in airless rooms/Then vile rewards for you… I can read you like a book/I can see you hanging from a beam.”
The jagged, jazzy angles of ‘How Does The Grass Grow’ with its musical hat-tip to The Shadows’ ‘Apache’ hints at bloody wartime tragedy, and sticking to the theme, ‘I’d Rather Be High’ turns luscious plastic psych-pop to the caddish tale of a young soldier who’d “rather smoke and phone my ex, be begging for some teenage sex”, deliciously liquid, Eastern-tinged guitar collapsing gracefully into the floaty calm of the chorus.
Loveliest of all though is ‘Dancing Out In Space’, whose shimmying rhythms and warm, twangy licks are carefree as a giggle. The key change going into the chorus and the adorable resolution are the stuff musical love is made of, and love is of course the subject. The fact that Bowie quietly slips in a reference to Symbolist poet Georges Rodenbach into this irresistible dance tune makes it all the more delightful, the most invigorating moment on an album that bubbles over with life and creative curiosity.
Tony Visconti says that while making ‘The Next Day’, Bowie was smiling all the time, happy to be back in the studio, and had told him “‘I just want to make records’”. This album is, foremost, about songcraft. Rather than reinventing Bowie, it absorbs his past and moves it on, hungry for more (and indeed, Visconti has hinted that more is to come). It demands that you listen to it in this moment, not that you give it an easy ride because this is the man who made ‘Heroes’; and its songs more than live up to the demand. With Bowie sounding like he’s too busy and having too much fun to worry about the dying of any light, it seems like there’s many more next days to come.