Monday, June 3, 2013

Album Review: David Bowie "The Next Day"

Promotional poster for "The Next Day," photo by Mark Taylor.

David Bowie, 2013.
When it was announced in January that David Bowie would be releasing a new album in March, I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe it, David Bowie was finally returning to music almost ten years after releasing his last album. I was so excited for this album to come out. I really thought Bowie was retired for good, I really feared that I’d never hear any more new music from one of my idols. And then suddenly, on Bowie’s 66th birthday, the announcement was made: Bowie was back! It was so thrilling to have it happen that way, instead of suffering through months of rumors about purported sessions, having release dates pushed back, etc. It was great to read all the articles about Bowie in the press, and to see how excited people were about him again. 

I will freely admit that I can’t really be objective in writing about “The Next Day.” I think it’s fantastic, and I’m just so happy to have Bowie back. I can’t really compare “The Next Day” to any other Bowie album simply because its gestation and release are so different from any other Bowie album. “The Next Day” will always be different from other Bowie albums simply because it’s his “comeback” album, and because of the near-decade between “Reality” and “The Next Day.”  I will also admit that I’ve very selfishly been a little annoyed at David Bowie the last couple of years just because he’s been out of the game for so long. Because Bowie has been so prolific for so much of his career, and music seems to flow out of him so naturally, it was tough for me to accept that he might have simply packed it up and called it a day. I’ve tried to be excited about the few compilations that have come out since he stepped off the stage in 2004, like “VH1 Storytellers,” (which I reviewed here) and the belated live CD release from the wonderful “Reality” tour, but there’s nothing as exciting as a brand-new Bowie album. It will be very interesting to see what this next phase in his career brings about. Bowie has said he’s not going to tour, and he hasn’t given any interviews to promote the album. We’ll see if both those things continue in the future.  

There’s a lot of material to digest on “The Next Day,” 14 songs on the album proper, and 3 bonus tracks on the Deluxe Edition, with not a cover version in sight. There’s a lot of variety on the album, from rockers to slow ballads. Bowie’s writing muse is clearly back. 

While typical music criticism focuses a lot on the lyrics of a song, analyzing Bowie’s lyrics is always difficult, as he has for so long written in a “non-linear” fashion, making typical lyrical analysis a waste of time. It’s less about the actual meanings of the words and more about the feelings that the songs conjure up.

I do have to say, however, despite all of my praise for Bowie, that the album cover for “The Next Day” is one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen. The designers can talk all they want to about how meta it is, but to me it’s profoundly unoriginal, just a rip-off of the cover of one of Bowie’s greatest albums, “Heroes,” plus a white box, with “The Next Day” printed inside the box in a super boring font. For an artist who’s created some of the most iconic album covers ever, it’s a profound disappointment.

I’m not going to dissect every song on “The Next Day,” rather I’ll just mention some of the highlights of the album for me. The first song “The Next Day” is a really great song. It’s so fun to just hear Bowie’s terrific voice again. “The Next Day” sounds like it would fit in well on “Heathen” or “Reality.” The song is an aggressive rocker with lyrics about abusive religious figures. Bowie also uses the word “gormless” in the song, which means stupid or lacking intelligence. Who else would use “gormless” in a rock song? Probably only Elvis Costello or David Byrne.

 “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is maybe my favorite song on the album. It plays off of the double meaning of stars, both as celestial bodies and as celebrity bodies. It harkens back to a lot of Bowie’s best work, which deals with celebrity and fame. It features a gorgeous and catchy melody. The narrator of the song has an ambivalent attitude towards the stars, singing:

“We will never be rid of these stars
But I hope they live forever”

 “Where Are We Now?” was the first song released from the album as a single in January. It’s a slow, melancholy song that references Bowie’s time spent living in Berlin in the late 1970’s. When I first heard it, I wasn’t that impressed, and I found the song too slow and rather dull. But now that I’ve heard it within the context of the full album, it’s grown on me and I like it more. 

“I’d Rather be High” is the tale of a teenage soldier who would rather be anywhere else than where he is-in combat. It shows that Bowie’s talent for writing a song as a character is still intact.

“(You Will) Set the World on Fire” is a driving rocker about a folk singing girl in Greenwich Village in the 1960’s. The lyrics reference many of the folk singers of the day, and Bowie even mentions my favorite 1960’s folk singer, Phil Ochs, as he sings,

 “Baez leaves the stage
Ochs takes notes
When the black girl and guitar
Burn together hot in rage.”

The last bonus track on the album, “I’ll Take You There,” is one of my favorite songs on the album, and one of the catchiest. It’s a fast rocker, and the lyrics feature the characters of Sophie and Lev, who wonder,

“What will be my name in the USA?
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there
Who will I become in the USA?”

We don’t really know why Sophie and Lev are trying to get to the United States, or if they make it there or not. But that’s one of Bowie’s charms; he doesn’t always spell everything out for us. He leaves a lot for us to interpret however we want to. 

“The Next Day” is a great album, brimming full of ideas from a master rock musician. Bowie has long been a superlative singer, songwriter, and performer, and on “The Next Day” he shows that he’s ready to create great songs once again. No matter what other albums come out in 2013, “The Next Day” will be a major highlight for me, simply because it’s a very welcome return to music by one of my favorite musicians.


Uncle E said...

I dunno...I think it's just OK, a 6 or maybe if I'm stretching it a 7 out of 10. What it did do, for me, is make me reach for the great, great records between The Man Who Sold The World and up to Scary Monsters. I know I'm missing out on a lot of great stuff...but when you were as utterly amazing as Bowie was during that time it's difficult not to make comparisons.

Mark said...

E, I agree, Bowie's work from the 70's will always overshadow what he did afterwards. And his albums from the 70's are so full of amazing songs. I think he did some really interesting work in the 90's, but those albums are so uneven that they get overlooked. I do think Heathen and Reality are both amazing albums. I don't know if The Next Day will stand up to repeated listens the way those albums will, but I'm just so happy he's making music again.

Uncle E said...

Truthfully Mark I am too. I love Bowie, he's been with me for over 35 years now, and is right up there in the hierarchy (Beatles, Kinks, Bowie, Lowe, Hitchcock, Costello, The Who, etc). Couldn't imagine life without my Bowie records! It's just sad when you come to the inevitable conclusion that one of your musical heroes will never, ever reach the heights of their past. Once you get over that and accept it, things are OK. I guess I just wasn't quite there yet with Bowie, I thought he had one more great album in him and because of that I was disappointed.