David Bowie - The Next Day

The confounding return of The Thin White Duke

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.

4 stars 4 stars 4 stars 4 stars

RCA | tbc (CD / 2-LP)

Reviewed by Jason Draper
<< Back to Issue 412

You might also like: