We might have discovered Bowie wasn’t an alien years ago, but it’s possible he could still be a wizard. After years of silence, the surprise 8 January, 5.01am (12.01am where he lives in New York – the first minute of his 66th birthday) dropping of new single Where Are We Now? ensured that the world was dazzled by Bowie’s sudden revealing act come breakfast-time. Yet while the internet (and the fact that, until that morning, it seemed as though we had more chance of a JD Salinger resurrection than a new Bowie album) has given him the tools to make such a stunning guerrilla move, it’s also enabled many a leak over the years. The upshot: music journalists now often get just one listen of an album in closed conditions, left to do the best they can on first impressions. With a record as dense as The Next Day, any resulting review is going to be an exercise in damage limitation. It’s like the difference between excavating a cave and scratching on walls with a fork.
Initial impressions, then… Check that “Heroes”-reappropriating sleeve and think: if we could have been heroes “just for one day”, what happens the day after? Well, strictly speaking, Lodger came out 19 months after but, broadly put, The Next Day has a strikingly post-“Berlin trilogy” feel about it. It could almost have been called The Next Step. And then there’s Where Are We Now?, stuffed with reflective references to Bowie’s time in the German capital, yet almost resigned and, with an alarmingly frail vocal, a complete wrong-footing. It sounds nothing like the album it’s buried in.
“Here I am, not quite dying,” Bowie avers on the opening title track, yet the record itself is steeped in death: “Say goodbye to the thrills of life” he sings on early stand-out Love Is Lost, interjecting his own oppressive keyboard stabs like slabs of end times organ. “Where do the boys lie?/Mud mud mud/How does the grass grow?/ Blood blood blood” he chants on How Does The Grass Grow?, amid vocal interpolations of the Apache riff. I’d Rather Be High appears to be sung from the perspective of a young soldier at one point stumbling into a graveyard to whisper something that sounds like: “Just remember, duckies, everybody gets got.” Many of these visions occure either at night or as the sun is going down.
This is an album that’s only ever going to reveal itself fully as time goes on. For starters, Bowie’s voice is often so submerged in the mix that it’s difficult to parse what he’s singing; even when reduced to a four-piece, the band are unremittingly complex. A lifelong Scott Walker fan, Bowie also appears to have put together his own audio jigsaw puzzle. The influence is writ large on the chilling closer Heat, coming off like Scott’s The Electrician, but, whereas Walker draws on historical resources for his albums, The Next Day is littered with references to Bowie’s own past – with some lifts from rock’s back pages thrown in for good measure (Dancing Out In Space finds him once again in thrall to the rock’n’roll backbeat; Valentine’s Day recalls Lennon-led mid-period Beatles).
Is it stretching things to suggest that Dirty Boys’ “You will buy a feather hat/I will steal a cricket bat” recalls the couple that’s mean/drinks all the time in “Heroes” as transplanted into the music-hall world of Bowie’s Deram debut? Perhaps, but there’s no mistaking Five Years’ iconic drum pattern when it sneaks in at the end of You Feel So Lonely You Could Die (itself purloining an Elvis title and giving it a hint of Queen vocal melody). It’s done with no fanfare, no signalling: it’s just there. And then there’s something like the Lust For Life bassline wandering in when you’re not looking; or a vocal delivery reminiscent of Lodger’s African Night Flight; guitar flourishes with Young Americans’ shimmer and jagged solos akin to Robert Fripp’s leads on Heroes. There’s a moment where he could burst into Boys Keep Swinging, while later offering grim flashes of “a corpse hanging from a beam” (You Feel So Lonely…).
things, it’s impossible not to keep looking for them (does the “Mud mud mud”/Apache refrain from How Does The Grass Grow? really have hints of the fake stuck groove that ends Diamond Dogs’ Ever Circling Skeletal Family?). Along with long-term collaborators including guitarist Earl Slick, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and drummer Zachary Alford, Bowie and producer Tony Visconti have spent two years piecing together something that, if it is a jigsaw puzzle, might well be using pieces from different sets. Perhaps it’s the natural logjam of ideas that occurs when Bowie stops releasing albums with any regularity. After all, what else has he left to do other than try to make sense of his singular course through rock and pop?
It’s become a lazy habit for journalists to append “his best since Scary Monsters” to every Bowie album from 1995’s Outside onwards, so how about this: The Next Day is certainly his most engaging and intriguing since Outside. For now, that’s more than enough. It brings to mind the story that John Lennon, after writing I Am The Walrus, declared: “Let the fuckers work that one out.” As to whether The Next Day will remain a must-hear once the puzzle’s been cracked? Only tomorrow will tell. Or maybe the day after.