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Review: David Bowie - The Next Day
This time last year David Bowie would have been coming to terms with his newly acquired bus pass having spent the last decade in retirement with his family. On the 8th January this year however, we received the incredible news that The Thin White Duke had been busy recording his 27th studio album, The Next Day - his first since 2003. Considering he had turned down the opportunity to play the TwentyTwelve Olympicstm – arguably the biggest one off performance platform Britain has ever seen (so big they gave half of it to Emili Sandé) – it is fair to say that even his most devout fans had come to accept that the career of their idol had come to an end. Therefore the announcement from Bowie’s twitter page on his 66th birthday that he had a surprise installed for us on his website (new single ‘Where Are We Now’ and a new album out soon) was always going to generate an intense volume of excitement. The best part being that, with The Next Day, it was worth it.
The opening track’s refrain of “Here I am, not quite dying” - to the backing of a pulsating, jerking rhythm that only Bowie could ever make work – defiantly announces his return from the start and sets the tone for an album that simultaneously manages to turn back the clock on Bowie’s career whilst still seeming light years ahead of anyone else.
A recurring theme of the album is Bowie revisiting his time in Berlin in the late 1970s, the album’s cover work being the most obvious example and the dirty sax riff on second track ‘Dirty Boys’ sounding at one with his work of the time. ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’, the album’s latest single, swiftly follows with a driving bass rhythm and unnerving vocal style. Singing about the world’s celebrity obsession, it’s hard not to hear Bowie revealing his own frustrations at life in the spotlight; though trying to read too much into Bowie lyrics can quite easily lead you down blind alleys. ‘Love is Lost’ comes next, again featuring driving rhythms but also with an excellent climactic bridge before we come to the album’s first slower song, and also the song that announced this album to the world.
‘Where Are We Now’ is the first time we realise that Bowie has aged since 1978. His voice, for once so brittle, asking us “where are we now” whilst referencing times long gone is oddly revealing for an artist of Bowie’s mystique. This is a beautifully emotive song that gets better with each listen (which is lucky considering how much Radio 2 and 6 Music play it).
‘Valentine’s Day’ is lovely pop with a sweet melody and chord changes that manage to surprise and please in equal measure. If not quite reaching the same heights, with its dominating lead guitar line it sounds more reminiscent of 1972’s Ziggy Stardust. We then get sent a further 8 years forward to Scary Monsters with ‘If You Can See Me’; a song that sounds as though it belongs in a sci-fi chase sequence. Bowie’s TARDIS keeps working its magic as the next song, ‘I’d Rather Be High’, has flowing Indian style riffs that could have snuck their way onto the Magical Mystery Tour. The chorus of “I’d rather be high, I’d rather be deaf, than training these guns on those men in the sand” even makes me want to go out and protest against the Vietnam War. ‘I’d Rather Be High’ is brilliantly catchy and goes to show that Bowie’s knack for a great innovative pop song has never left him.
The Next Day’s producer Tony Visconti was the man used for Low and Heroes, and ‘How Does The Grass Grow?’ brings out the similarities most strongly with its opening synths and constant switching of vocal textures. Full of attitude and innovation, it grabs your attention throughout whilst never seeming forced. The penultimate track is a waltz timed ballad, ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’, a name straight out of the Morrissey guidebook. Despite being no ‘Five Years’, in the context of the album it is an important song, breaking away from the rock n’ roll before the final track.
Album closer, ‘Heat’, is awesome. Again, we hear Bowie’s age and experience come out beautifully in his voice but this time to the backing of deep, space-age synths. An ominous song, it would surely get Freud’s pulse racing: “my father and the prison, I could only love you by hating him more”. Gradually it builds with acoustic strumming, bass and haunting strings to a great intensity before fading out to a drone; no one else sounds like this.
The worry leading up to The Next Day’s release was that it would eventually fall into the group of decent if a bit disappointing albums he released before his hiatus; Bowie has done more than enough to ensure that that won’t happen with this album. During Bowie’s peak he went out of his way to write a brilliant album in each of the different popular styles (Space Oddity – Folk; Man Who Sold The World – Rock; Young Americans – Soul etc.), he would always be one step ahead of the pack. The problems started to arise when he continued this approach whilst no longer being so relevant in the 1990s. By trying to make new sounding albums his priority rather than a collection of great songs, however admirable his innovation was, you never continued to listen to the record after the hype had died down. With The Next Day, Bowie hasn’t tried to make an electronic album, a rock album or a funk album but simply a great David Bowie album; that is The Next Day’s greatest success.