David Bowie – The Next Day LP
The 8th of January 2013: David Bowie’s 66th birthday, a milestone that may have passed with little significance to the wider world apart from the most ardent of his fans. Yet, the day would also signal the release of the rock icon’s first new material in a decade as ‘Where Are We Now’ appears on his official site. The track itself is a beautiful and tender ballad, an homage to his once adopted hometown of Berlin and, above all, it is a truly pleasant surprise.
The announcement that a new album was to follow in the spring only added to the excited noises being made about his return. Yet, in the weeks that followed that initial clamour a train of thought emerged, suggesting that perhaps the element of surprise could cloud the judgement of this comeback; that the excited squeals could drown out the music itself. ‘Where Are We Now’ – wonderful as it is – certainly represents one of the more orthodox Bowie offerings, and would perhaps struggle to be heard alongside tracks from his zeitgeist-creating 70’s heyday. Then again, so would plenty else.
So, it becomes important to ignore the “comeback” headlines and all the noise that goes with. Let’s call The Next Day what it is – the follow up to 2003’s forgettable Reality LP.
In which case, fortunately, the music can speak for itself in vociferous fashion. It quickly becomes evident that ‘Where Are We Now’ is a bit of an anomaly with regards to the overall feel of the album. The record’s opener and title track is bounding, classic rock ‘n’ roll fare which, in tandem with Bowie’s defiant bellow of “here I am, not quite dying” in the chorus, is the sound of rejuvenation. ‘(You Will) Set the World on Fire’ is similarly rocket-fuelled, but is immediately contrasted with the mid-tempo theatre of ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’, and the choked-up, twilight amble of closing track ‘Heat’. Such disparities demonstrate how The Next Day possesses those key ingredients expected of any Bowie record – eclecticism and originality. This is perhaps best evidenced in ‘Dirty Boys’, a stand-out track on which Bowie, as narrator, is portrayed as a shadowy figure, creeping along in brass-heeled shoes, his tale occasionally interspersed by sinister guitar wails. Perhaps it signals the embryotic stage of Bowie’s transformation into some kind of revered, musical Godfather figure… or perhaps not. If there is one thing that the sudden unveiling of record should have taught us, it is to not try and second guess David Bowie.
As with any art form there are so many ways in which this record can be perceived. You may want to ride the wave of goodwill and judge The Next Day purely under the label of comeback-triumphalism, or instead re-contextualise it and consider each song in terms of where it fits in to Bowie’s vast and varied back-catalogue. You may even want to try and get inside the mind of a man who incudes precious little autobiography in his lyrics. Then again, perhaps you could shut out the clamour of the rest of the world and simply enjoy the music in isolation from its context for a change.
Do that, and The Next Day is delightfully easy to enjoy.
Words by Lewis Parker.