David Bowie will never have a ‘last album.’ Sure, in terms of time and effort, there may be a few more left in his corporeal being, but he’s the kind of dude who’s entire body of even half-hearted demos can last the demanding public centuries of musical debate. And that’s the other thing: when you’ve had a career as storied, legendary, and ever-changing as his, how do you cap it all off? It’s an impossible task, and I certainly wouldn’t ask him to.
But what to make of this J.D. Salinger-esque reclusiveness in terms of creative output, besides his many film and television cameos and the occasional word with the press? To, suddenly, release an album out into the world with barely a month’s worth of advance notice, with two music videos to appear prior to the album’s full release, and with a cover virtually irreverent to the man’s own body of work? That cover should be the stuff of debates, given the music on the record and its own presentation of a sort of in-joke, as if the input after Heroes wasn’t worth remembering, and this is exactly what was supposed to follow.
The Next Day doesn’t quite follow that blueprint, though the cover certainly influences it. You can’t say this is the return of Ziggy, or the Thin White Duke, or any other variation of Bowie you can think of. In fact, it simply is The Next Day, but what that says — either as comment on the past or a continuation of Bowie’s impressive oveur — doesn’t matter as much as media types want to have you believe. Yet, I can’t help but feel like there was a twinge of frustration with this record, a need to just release something, just to move on past the speculation about what Mr. Bowie’s been doing all this time.
After the jump, David Bowie takes us to some very familiar territories via strange routes.
I make no secret that my favorite era of Bowie is the obvious choice of the Glam-era Bowie. Even for someone who will rant and rave about the awfulness of intentionally theatrical rock music, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona (and the music that surrounded that period) is the exception that proved the rule. Part of what makes that theatrical brand of rock tolerable for me is the quality of his voice — that unique instrument that has a defined range, sings of stars, space creatures and the like, but is uniquely human in his emotional presentation. The human part of his music and voice is what makes Bowie so special for me, even when the music surrounding him so wild and bombastic.
When “Where Are We Now” debuted on Bowie’s 66th birthday, I cringed initially, fearing a mopey old man rocker record with nothing but woe for the age that has claimed yet another eternally youthful man whose made his trade in the young man’s game. But upon hearing The Next Day in full, “Where Are We Now” is the most outstanding performance of that very instrument I find so vexing I’ve heard in quite some time. It’s a beautiful song that unfolds with every repeated listen into something simply beautiful. Granted, there was the unofficial leak of Toy from some time ago, that had Bowie’s relatively still young voice in fine form, and here on The Next Day, there’s a kind of gravity dragging it down a bit, but it’s not the age that his voice disappoints. Instead, there’s a resigned weakness to the songwriting.
Those of you who love the Berlin era of Bowie may find a lot to love about the flat plainness about a lot of songs. There’s no “Wham Bam, Thank you Ma’am!” moments here — not that I was expecting them, even, honest! — but it’s disappointing that I can’t remember anything that really hooked me to any individual song once I stop listening to it. It’s a mixed bag of the most bizarre order, knowing that a lot of the music is dynamic in very subtle ways, but it’s a challenge that’s hard to get over. The title track, which leads the album, is one of the moments where it disappoints — Bowie just can’t seem to pull off the anger, or even the resigned frustration that the music commands, surrounded by sharp, angular guitars, combined with a bouncing, building rhythm that evokes a menacing mood, only to led to this bizarre comic aping what should be a rousing chorus, followed by a second verse that clips in such a bizarre fashion, it’s more comical than effective.
Yet, “Love is Lost” is one of those surprising tracks where at first listen, it’s too flat to bother with a second time, but when it comes on, it becomes a unique mystery of so much of Bowie’s strengths coming together for the first time on record in ages. It’s a moody, dark bluesy piece supported by an organ drone that borders on paranoid. And yes, his voice reaches an emotional height that makes me scratch my head, wondering where that guy was during the session for “The Next Day.”
“Where Are We Now” is not only a beautiful display of the emotional softness Bowie is capable of displaying in his voice — think “Rock and Roll Suicide” or the verses of “Life on Mars?” or “Kooks,” — but also a classic piece of Bowie using his songwriting bag of tricks. Listen, and tell if the progression doesn’t sound like classic Bowie. But the build into the outro, which introduces a marching drum to back the poetic, beautifully constructed last words:
As long as there’s sun
As long as there’s sun
As long as there’s rain
As long as there’s rain
As long as there’s fire
As long as there’s fire
As long as there’s me
As long as there’s you
It’s sublime, and just as rewarding as anything else he’s ever recorded.
“Valentine’s Day” is a tricky track, which as far as I could tell may be about school bullying, but is about straight forward a basic rock song as we’ll get on The Next Day, compared to some of the far more challenging and radically different tracks. Like “If You Can See Me,” which has an introduction copped from an old U2 song, while the verses are a kind of stacco, techno mess. “Dirty Boys” may be my second favorite song on the album for it’s slow, stuttered pace, sharp guitars added strictly for melody, and deep sax melody that make me think this was meant to be recorded by Iggy Pop for Lust for Life, while the appropriately-titled “I’d Rather Be High” offers some fun 60’s style psych-guitar melody, even while (again) Bowie’s voice doesn’t quite fit the music 100% of the time. Perhaps “Dancing Out in Space” is a little more successful in the same regard, but it’s still like a gem you have to find so late in the album — though, I’d say it’s worth it for the alien-like Doo-Wop chorus that makes the track an incredible joy (please wear headphones when you hear it, okay?). And maybe it’s just my imagination running away from me, but the verses and riff of “(You Will) Set the World On Fire” may actually be a nod to Jack White as the next great torchbearer of great rock and roll, which makes its up-tempo, straight-forward style all the more like a delightful in-joke, compared to some of the denser songs on here.
Grade: B-. This is a challenging listen, but it’s not always. There are some moments of typical Bowie brilliance, but they’re few and far between. This is great for people who love Low, but who may get turned off by the few tracks where Bowie chooses for Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars style sparseness or retro-sensibilities.
I’m not going to call this a career retrospective, nor is it the next evolution in Bowie’s constantly changing career. There are some songs better developed than others, and song songs performed better than others. It’s an up-and-down ride, and one that is not evidently great on first listen, and certainly rewards repeat listens, but once you stop listening to it, there’s no immediate draw to any particular curiosity to draw you back. You practically have to force yourself to want to listen to it, but when you do, oh boy!
It’s a complex, challenging album, but nothing to say that’s an absolute disappointment either. By the time “Heat,” the album’s closer arrives, you don’t expect this heady mix of a moody, complex track full of thick swaths of bass and acoustic guitar, swirls of spacey synthesizers, and the most down Bowie’s voice has ever sounded. It works, and it’s a fine work of his art, but like most of the tracks, there are things to love, while the flaws in the same tracks are all too glaring.
This is an uneven effort made by an uneven artist — albeit, one who mastered the concept of never meeting expectations, whether disappointing them or far exceeding them. For some, that may mean it’s the perfect Bowie album, while for others means we can always wait for more. Count me in the later, because even when Bowie underwhelms, he stills finds a way to impress.