In which writewyattuk gets in a few early listens of the eagerly-awaited new David Bowie LP, The Next Day, and is suitably impressed …
EVEN the cover of David Bowie’s new album is something of a statement, a blanked-out version of his classic 1977 Heroes sleeve perhaps suggesting a clean slate and chance for this iconic artist to be judged afresh.
It’s difficult to ignore his past of course, and the early January release of first single Where Are We Now? – on his 66th birthday – courted comparisons with Bowie’s Berlin trilogy. A fair bit of the left-field output on this album suggests there’s something in that. And whatever the intention, we certainly have his most accomplished album in three decades.
Two years in the making, and 10 years since his last, The Next Day is Bowie’s 24th studio album, and on this evidence let’s hope there are more to come. Tony Visconti proves to be a perfect production partner, and there are no fillers here either, the most discordant moments having their place in the scheme of things, and the material strong throughout – commercial or otherwise.
From the opener, title track The Next Day, I’m hooked, Gerry Leonard and David Torn’s under-stated yet duelling, abrasive guitars taking me back to nights watching the high-octane six-string assault of early That Petrol Emotion. But Bowie’s often-imitated but never quite mastered vocal ensures you’re never in doubt who you’re listening to.
There are no real statements of intent on this album, but “here I am … not quite dying” seems apt for the 2013 Bowie. The same could be said for this song’s narrator’s promise to stick around a bit, “and the next day, and the next, and another day.”
If The Next Day suggests present and future, there’s a nod to the past on the following track, Dirty Boys, grainy images from the Space Oddity and Ashes to Ashes promos springing to mind as the artist formerly known as Aladdin wipes his lamp to reveal glimpses of all the guilty fun of Finchley Fair, Tobacco Road, stolen cricket bats and smashed windows. Are we in North Carolina or North London? Who knows. “The sun goes down and the die is cast, and you have no choice.” It’s stream of consciousness stuff maybe, but the harmonies point to evidence of a re-kindled passion for sound and vision. Boys Keep Swinging Pt II anyone?
Like many tracks here, it doesn’t outstay its welcome either, fading just as I realise I could be listening to a Nick Cave song. It seems churlish to mention later artists and their influence on Bowie, when surely it was always the other way round. But it does go to show how relevant he remains – at one with the best talents of the past 30 years while so clearly a huge inspiration on them in the first place.
Talking of relevance and resonance, The Stars (Are out Tonight) is perhaps the closest we have here to an old-fashioned chart hit, bringing together the best elements of Bowie’s ’80s commercial success, Blue Jean and all. It’s certainly crafted too, the very expression of a soundtrack for driving the open road, although with the Thin White Duke on board you expect some jarring imagery en route.
The gorgeous rumbling sax (oddly reminiscent of Absolute Beginners) creeping in below the strings part-way through helps bring it all together, not least that nod to nostalgia he so effectively employs. The complementary cutting guitar adds to that sense of celebration. And then there’s the sumptuous stellar imagery. But this is far more than a fresh attempt at increased radio airplay.
There’s more of that ‘80s Bowie feel on Love Is Lost, this time from the slow-build school of fine songwriting, and Leonard’s howling blues guitar somewhere in the distance helps us navigate our way from station to station. In fact, even the bend on the drum offers insight on how to produce a timeless track.
Where Are We Now? was the first track aired, and grows more powerful by the play, a spaced-out oddity you could say. It’s become one of my favourite-ever Bowie singles, and when he hits that chorus the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. Introspective, hauntingly beautiful, and a pensive recollection of past days. And if Tony Levin’s punctuating bass gives a Daniel Lanois feel, Bowie is the Emmylou Harris of the piece, his subtle keyboard complemented by heart-felt vocals.
It must have been difficult to know where to go from there, but Valentine’s Day hits the right notes, a low-key 70s-style hybrid of sweet rock’n’roll – suggesting more than a hint of past collaborations with Mott the Hoople – wrapped around a timely and deadly theme of outsiders, grudges and high school shootings.
If You Can See Me is altogether more jarring musically, the man who fell to earth’s harmonies with Gail Ann Dorsey the closest we get here to other-worldly Bowie – competing rhythms and time signatures taking us into uncharted waters in something of an aural mash-up that may rule out too much Radio 2 airplay. But maybe that’s Bowie for you, seemingly never comfortable too long with the quiet life.
Before we know it, he changes gears again, giving us something altogether more Brit Pop in I’d Rather Be High. For someone seemingly at home in every era, there’s as much a hint of Blur here as Revolver-era Beatles, that later assumption aided by Levin’s bass again. Close your eyes and you might even see the black’n’white footage, that 60s’ feel under-pinned by a 40s’ style tale of the horrors of war.
But if that was Bowie’s musical bid to leave his Tin Machine capsule and flirt with the best of ‘90s pop, Boss of Me takes us back to ground-breaking ’70s material. I guess that’s largely down to Steve Elson’s baritone saxophonics, with elements of early Roxy Music on display too.
Dancing out in Space is as much a catch-all for Bowie today as throughout the decades, giving us snippets of everything in his make-up (and let’s face it, he’s slapped a fair bit of make-up on over the years), an all-out chugging rhythm bringing to mind past workmate Iggy Pop and Lust for Life. Perhaps there’s something in that too. Bowie may have had periods we’d rather gloss over, but there’s no doubting he’s on his game here and has regained his own lust for music, time and erm, space.
With How Does the Grass Grows we’re in the 70s again, and you can envisage the face-paint, high heels and post-war parents tutting at this alarming vision. Yet, aside from its bubblegum feel and playground chorus, a more reflective middle-eight takes us to a whole different level, setting us up nicely for the album’s climax.
(You Will) Set the World on Fire cranks up that pace again, Earl Slick and Leonard’s heavy rock riff suggesting we’re really building to something. While I remain reticent to mention modern influences, I’ll get around that by highlighting instead those I think might pull off a cover version, with Brett Anderson’s Suede springing to mind here.
If this album can be interpreted as a statement of where Bowie is in, the poetic You Feel So Lonely You Could Die has more the feel of an obituary. Yet for its maudlin subject matter, musically it’s an inspirational tribute to someone who’s given so much over the last 50 years. And the swirling chords, Zachary Alford’s hypnotic drumming and Dorsey’s mesmeric bass combine perfectly.
And then we’re away on the back of Heat, with the credits rolling. Much of the cinema is emptying, but we’re still gripped as Bowie’s jangling acoustic guitar – offering shades of Major Tom and all that – offer a perfect foil to the live band feel, as those strings increase and see us off in style. While the verse resembles Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, a soaring, intense but somehow still subtle chorus takes us onto a whole new plain, in a soundtrack to what could be a truly inspirational movie.
Word has it that there are no plans for Bowie to tour this album, and maybe that’s a relief after all the hard work put in by the man himself and Visconti to blend a live feel with hidden studio magic.
In a nutshell, The Next Day works on so many levels, not just as a celebration of Bowie’s longevity and continued relevance, but also proof positive that he can still hit such a fresh, creative height after all these years.