It’s funny that after so many years of so many Bowies – most of them presciently future-forward – this newest one seems most reliant on his past. Not in a romantically reminiscing way (save for the drearily dreamy tale of old Berlin, “Where are We Now?”), but rather in a caustic, occasionally doomy fashion. The piss-take of its cover (1977’s Heroes redone as a Post-It with all shots at heroism eradicated) and its inclusion of musical and lyrical antecedents from albums’ past signal as much. Then again, so did Bowie’s last two albums, 2002’s Heathen and 2003’s Reality.
What’s truly different about the The Next Day (released this week on Columbia Records) and those most recent albums is that, as Frank Sinatra says in Pal Joey, ten years is a long time between drinks. That Bowie finally re-emerged after rumors of ill health and retirement makes the innovations, the theatricality, the lyrical breadth and that powerfully sumptuous and very English croon of his so much more special than if he dropped albums with the same frequency that he did between 1970 and 1980.
In an era of obviousness, the moment of everybody all the time, David Bowie created his own rare void. He made you miss him, the complexities of his craft and bag of tricks. And The Next Day is complex, pissed off and crafty. Together with his longtime producer/collaborator Tony Visconti and a preponderance of players from his last several outings, Bowie amazes and astounds simply by showing up strong.
Lyrically, Bowie’s Next Day goes for the jugular, finding blood, violent mythology, vile bodies, infanticide and gruesome death. To quote his “Beauty and the Beast,” nothing is exactly wrong but darling something’s in the way with slaughter in the air and protest on the wind.
Someone could get skinned, but how?
The squiggle of a title song opens the album with an aggressive kick and squealing guitar solo which makes the whole thing quickly reminiscent of Scary Monsters-era noise. “They can’t get enough of that doomsday song,” sneers Bowie, who sounds as if he’s singing through gritted teeth. As the swaggering track bounces along and the phrase “Here I am/Not quite dying/My body left to rot in a hollow tree,” the melody of the tune begins to sound like yet another Bowie, that of “Putting Out Fire (With Gasoline)” with a chorus tinged with – and this image will never leave your head once I say it – the Keebler Elf cookie song. The “hollow tree” bit nails it.
The jerking, slashing guitar waltz of “Dirty Boys” finds saxophonist Steve Ellison giving Bowie a steady baritone honk onto which the slurry shushy singer grafts lines about wearing feathery hats and stealing cricket bats. The stoic lurch reminds me of old Morphine records and its gloriously turgid cabaret bounce, with Bowie acting the vaudeville ham until the crooning swoony chorus and its nerve-jangling sweetness. That Bowie hasn’t ever approached this halting honking vibe before – unless you point at the fey cabaret of “Time” from Aladdin Sane – is fascinating, a new point of departure through which Bowie could operate should he use a next album (that comes hopefully less than ten years from now).
The next two songs are two of the least satisfying on The Next Day. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” and “Love is Lost” have a melodic lilt and a shared sheen that put them in mind of Never Let Me Down-era rockers. Worse is that, on “Stars,” Bowie’s take on modern celebrities looking backward – even at its most sarcastic – comes across as uneasily naïve (I do love, however, his take on celebrities “sexless and unaroused”). Not allowing one’s self to be recognized at airports and wearing flat caps and sweatshirts in one thing, but maybe Bowie should get out more often. Thankfully, it is one of the album’s few missteps. “Love is Lost” is lined with an eerie organ and a plunking synth – a solid state sound to be sure – and Bowie’s icy croon is at its stately best on it, but his look at dread youth and what’s left after age is squandered could have been better refined to a sharper finish.
Meanwhile, following first single/video “Where We Now?” comes the “sha la la la” sweep of “Valentines’ Day,” a sweet way of allowing Bowie to make a character study of a boy with a “world under his heels.” That its introductory pluck and its melody are reminiscent of “The Crying Game” makes this all the more haunting. Repeated listens make this track more pleasurable every time out. “You can say that I got a gift of sorts/A fear of rear windows and swinging doors,” sings Bowie – one of many Bowies – on “If You Can See Me.” In memory of the mass of helium-effected voices and Hall of the Mountain King vocals that Tony Visconti produced for The Man Who Sold the World, there is an epic swell to “If You Can See Me,” something prog-rockist with its fretless Tony Levin bass line, its sawing synth-strings and its cosmopolitan cool jazz breaks. Bowie’s lyrics about children swarming like bugs, spirits of greed and other brands of ultra-violence are exquisite-ly corpse-y and energetically poetic; another new Bowie at work, another avenue to continue along.
Stranger still is the next song, a tale of torrid protest, shuffling militaristic rhythms, gently loping guitars and a vocal that sounds remarkably young for a man of 66. The easy psychedelic “I’d Rather Be High” is Bowie’s catchiest number since “New Killer Star” and one that embraces refutation at all costs (to say nothing of a mean Beatles-ish coda). “I’d rather be high/I’d rather be flying/I’d rather be dead or out of my head than training my guns at those men in the sand,” goes its simply revolutionary stanza.
It just leaves you breathless that song.
From there we get snappy syncopated vocals and sturdy riffs (“Boss of Me”), helium-filled voices and “Ashes-to-Ashes” drum clips (“Dancing Out in Space”) and synth-slab snaky guitars with snarkier vocals (“How Does the Grass Grow”) that sound like the missing album in between Bowie’s art decade and his glossy Let’s Dance success. The weakest track within, “You Will Set the World on Fire,” is a mess with its aw-shucks ain’t-love-grand lyrics. Thankfully Bowie’s voice sounds good.
The Next Day saves two of its nicest moments for its finale. The idea of lovers in airless rooms is not unknown to Bowie, the guy who threw icepicks in the eyes of romantics and threw weird things on carpets during his Station to Station/Low axis. Here, though, on “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” Bowie hammily tosses those darts through the sonic prism of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and a set of chamber strings sawing below him, before gathering up steam and slowing proceedings eerily and atmospherically to a Scott-Walker-like crawl with “Heat” and its menacing Dada-ist lyrics. With his squealing vocal spirit and spaced-out oddity, neither ballad sounds as if Bowie’s aping anyone but himself as he treads upon ground that feels fresh for him.
Can’t wait to hear what the day after sounds like.
DOWNLOAD: “The Next Day,” “Dirty Boys, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” (www.columbiarecords.com)