Music Reviews
The Next Day

David Bowie The Next Day

(Columbia) Rating - 8/10

“Here I am, not quite dying,” David Bowie shouts on the chorus of the title track of The Next Day, his first album in 10 years. The lyric speaks for itself. It’s a defiant spit in the face of the doubters and a declaration of everlasting relevancy. It’s also a perfect gateway to The Next Day’s larger theme of mortality. But Bowie does not say he’s “not quite dead,” he says that he is “not quite dying.” The difference is not in age or health, but in the paradoxical immortality that David Bowie has achieved. He didn’t need to make The Next Day. If he didn’t, he would be the most famous and influential pop music innovator in the never-ending post-Beatles era, a title that would surely keep his name and art alive forever. But he did make this album, so now he’s an immortal who came back for more and delivered.

Bowie certainly acknowledges his musical past; most obviously, there’s the artwork, an obfuscation of the iconic Heroes cover-art that, to understate a bit, both acknowledges the past and push beyond it into the next day (pun intended, obviously). But there’s also the coda of “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is lifted from the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars opener 5 Years, and the song as a whole could detail the same apathetic world either immediately after 5 Years ends or with just one day left. Where Are We Now is a reflection on where he has come as a person since his years living in Berlin, where he famously recorded Low, Heroes, and Lodger. The answers, “as long as there’s sun/as long as there’s rain/as long as there’s me/as long as there’s you” are classically at terms with impending mortality, an always appropriate end to the constant search for justice that the verses slyly allude to.

But of course, David Bowie is not one to just do what other people are doing. He is the guy who takes that, puts his own twist on it, and becomes the new imitator. In the album’s final track, Heat, a slow crescendo with determined acoustic strumming, eerie synths, and downright scary, brooding bass melodies, Bowie takes an abrupt turn. He employs his deepest register, lamenting, “I don’t know who I am” and calling himself a seer and liar while implicating his father as a key figure. It’s all fictional, of course—Bowie has rarely sang about himself, and his father did not run a prison—but then, Bowie the artist has never matched Bowie the man through all his transformations, and the first verse of Heat and its subsequent striking questions of identity certainly parallel our blended perception of Bowie the man and Bowie the Thin White Duke or Ziggy Stardust. It’s a haunting track, unlike anything else on The Next Day and one requiring several listens to contextualize within the album and probably dozens to fully place in a greater context, but also one of the album’s best.

Being one of the best on The Next Day is quite an accomplishment, too. This album isn’t all serious—or maybe it is, but the hooks would never let on. The Next Day trots along to a jagged guitar hook, spacey solos, and a Bowie growl, Valentine’s Day is a kooky ode to loneliness and love decorated in delightful guitar lines that make for The Next Day’s most immediate and agreeable track (Visconti has said that this song is about a school shooter; but whether you buy into that will depend on how much you believe in artists telling you how to listen to their songs, and what you actually see in the lyrics). The Star’s (Are Out Tonight) is an aggressive reflection on fame completed by bluesy licks and an astonishing bridge and outro. By the time you get to shout-along chorus of (You Will) Set The World On Fire, you might find yourself thinking that it’s as if the man never stopped making music. And indeed, this is Bowie’s best album since Lodger, no question.

The pop songs on The Next Day are enough to make it a great album, but Bowie the innovator is present on it, too! The horns on Dirty Boys are not the instruments typically found on a Bowie song, and although it does not stand out on the album, it’s a step on new-ground executed well enough. Love Is Lost takes a very simple drumbeat, paranoid lyrics, and an organ chorus to make familiar components feel fresh again. There aren’t any music-changing revelations in these two songs or any of the others, but what Bowie does quietly break ground on is production, with the help of long-time producer Tony Visconti. Many of these songs are layered with backing vocals, drum tracks, and percussion that blend-in if you don’t listen carefully. Phillip Glass said that Bowie makes “fairly complex pieces of music, masquerading as simple pieces,” and although he was referring mostly to the Berlin trilogy, the compliment could apply here, too. On your first listen, you will realize how much fun these 14 songs are. On each subsequent listen, it will become increasingly clear how good they all are.

If The Next Day has one major disadvantage, it’s the mere fact that it is a David Bowie album. Bowie’s streak of albums in the ‘70s remains, to this day, a high-mark in popular music. Between The Man Who Sold The World in 1970 and Scary Monsters 10 years later, Bowie released, arguably, 10 classics (almost certainly 7 or 8). That’s unprecedented. The Next Day is the best Bowie album in 33 years, but it’s perfectly reasonable to not even call it a top 10 Bowie album. Put that aside though, and look at it this way: it’s one of the year’s best albums, and a genuinely great work of unashamed pop music that finds a way to be adventurous. It really is like he never stopped making music.