Do you remember where you were when you heard the news?
Like many Bowie fans, I had resigned myself to the fact that he was effectively, if not actually, retired, meaning that his final recorded material would be backing vocals to a couple of album tracks on Scarlett Johansson’s(!) debut in 2008. That is surely the definition of a “damp squib”.
There was speculation about ill-health. Was The Thin White Duke at death’s door? Had looming mortality rendered any thought of music-making frivolous? Maybe he was so ill he couldn’t physically play or sing? Had he finally gone crazy? Or his mothership beamed his back up into outer space where he belonged?
I really thought that the next we would hear from him would be that he had passed away 3 months ago in perfect privacy.
So a new single was the last thing I expected as I woke up on that morning in January. But then, doing the last thing you expect of him is exactly what David Bowie’s about. It’s his job.
I knew it was his birthday: it’s marked on my calendar (don’t judge me!). But, contrary in all things, the birthday gift was from Bowie to us. Well, thank you very much and many happy returns!
And what a song. ‘Where Are We Now?’ chimed perfectly with the narrative of Bowie being at death’s door: the fragile vocal, the restrained dignity of the arrangement as he looked back over a life lived. And such a rare thing for a Bowie song: the lyrics appeared to be autobiographical, as if he were sifting through a series of old photos from the Berlin days. Was he at last preparing to reveal to the world the real David Bowie?
So began two months of intense speculation before the album was released. How had the world’s most revered solo artist managed to spend two years making a whole LP without anyone knowing about it? You imagine a ruthless mafia of staff surrounding him with an impenetrable wall of secrecy: “The first rule of Bowie’s new album is you do not talk about Bowie’s new album”.
And the more important question: what will the record be like?
At first, information was scarce. But just as his lack of public appearance over recent years had bred speculation about his health, the lack of promotion for the album merely intensified the speculation about it. Interviews with those involved teased us with clues as to how it might sound.
Then came the reviews. In the absence of any interviews or personal appearances, salivating music journos raced to print a series of 4- and 5-star reviews of onanistic fervour hailing “the greatest comeback ever”. Team Bowie had no need to dirty themselves with any promo: in the vacuum created by his absence, it was all being done for them. And handsomely.
But like a footie fan trying to avoid the score until Match Of The Day comes on, I spent the last 2 months ignoring as much of the furore as possible. I wanted to keep myself nice for the official release on 11th March: the purchase, the unwrapping, the big first listen. I didn’t actually read any of the reviews, I avoided the free stream on iTunes, and I rationed myself to one listen of ‘Where Are We Now?’ every other day [though I confess that my resolve crumbled somewhat towards the end and I stayed up past midnight in order to download ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ as the very earliest opportunity].
‘The Stars’ was a shock in itself. We already knew that the first single was a bit of a red herring. ‘Where Are We Now?’ was fragile and nostalgic and talked about “walking the dead”. It seemed that Bowie might be ‘doing a Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin’. But word was that the album as a whole rocked, nay, funked. Bowie had talked about his last album, 2003’s Reality, as being “thrusty”. Might that description apply again here? This second single certainly seemed to indicate so. And for all the cynicism and satire of its lyrics, the song sounded upbeat. Even in the accompanying short film (look: real acting!), Bowie seemed a happier, healthier version of himself than the one he provided a glimpse of in the ‘Where Are We Now’ video.
So now, we’ve all had a week to live with The Next Day. I’ve cooked with it, done the ASDA run with it, commuted, bathed and fallen asleep with it. Does it live up to The Hype [sic]? How does it measure up to his previous work? And where does it sit stylistically alongside his other albums?
Well firstly, as any fan will know, giving an opinion of a new Bowie LP after just one listen is pointless. His work demands – and always rewards – repeated listening. Curves of melody that you didn’t notice at first bloom into focus; subtle differences between verses appear. Gradually you can hear the seams, and the workings of the songs reveal themselves.
The Next Day is clearly a cohesive suite of songs. He’s drafted in a collection of long-time collaborators and it certainly sounds like The David Bowie Band rather a straight-up solo effort. His vocals are sometimes lower down in the mix than I’d like, as if they’re being treated as just another instrument. There’s a sense of democracy within the band and, in that sense, there are comparisons to be made with the dreaded Tin Machine. And I shall do so. In a bit…
The album is lyrically dense. The words have clearly been important from the start and the feverish reviews have focussed quite heavily on what exactly it is Bowie has to say to us in 2013. The first single was accompanied by a lyric-video, enabling us to perfect our pronunciations of “Dschungel” and “Bose Brucker”. The day before the album arrived, its entire lyrics were printed like poetry in a full-page ‘advert’ in The Times. Bowie is literally letting his work speak for itself: here’s the words, here’s the music: you work it out.
Sonically, the songs hang together as a whole. Rather than throwing different styles at us from one track to the next as he has on his last two albums (‘Heathen’ in 2002 and ‘Reality’ in 2003), ‘The Next Day’ takes a more workmanlike, no-nonsense approach to songcraft, more akin to 1999’s ‘Hours…’ album.
Indeed, it sounds almost like a band recorded in a garage, as live. It’s a collection of songs that begs to be played live. I really hope Iman’s recent slip has some truth to it and that at least a couple of live run-throughs emerge.
If there’s a lack of variety through the album, this might understandably indicate a lack of confidence on Bowie’s part. Apart from the first single (which is sonically different from the rest of the album), no track truly stands out as exceptional. But then, no track makes you itch for the skip button either. In that sense, it is a perfect album to play on shuffle. And in this iPod age, it makes me wonder if Mr Bowie, in his divine wisdom, and with his savvy business acumen, has designed the LP as such from the outset.
Even calcified Bowie fans must have winced at some of his past junglist leanings, overwrought vocals, or ‘interesting’ choices of cover version. But there’s nothing cringe-worthy here at all. In fact, I’m left feeling a little disappointed that he’s dialled down the crazy. This could understandably be that lack of confidence after such a hiatus. And he must have been aware of the fanfare and scrutiny anything he released would be met with. After 10 years’ gestation, you wouldn’t want the world just to mutter “a bit weird” then politely avert their eyes. Surely even Bowie needs to exercise some self-preservation and make some more careful decisions about what he puts out there.
No can accuse him of jumping on any particular bandwagon this time around. There’s nothing particularly zeitgeist-y about the album. In fact, it sounds like nothing else around at the moment. Which is exactly as it should be.
There’s something almost bluesy about the sound. Something worthy, dare I say “retro”. The one-of-the-lads approach is bound to be more comfortable as Bowie rehabilitates himself back into the world of pop music. And, being one of the lads, there’s less camp. It is, in fact, one of the most masculine albums of his whole career: it’s a serious affair, it’s angry in places and there’s chugging guitar everywhere.
Which isn’t to say it’s not fun. When the protagonist in ‘I’d Rather Be High’ is “…pleading for some teenage sex…yeah!”, you can picture Bowie deliver that line with a huge grin. And vocalising the riff from The Shadows’ ‘Apache’ for the chorus of ‘How Does The Grass Grow?’ is, well, bonkers.
But I miss the breadth of his voice. Of course it’s unique and it still sounds great in places but with such a rich palette of voices to choose from, it seems a waste that several of the verses employ a one-note vocal melody (eg. ‘Stars’). Where’s that gorgeous warm croon? The whooping falsetto? [I should note that his phrasing on ‘(You Will) Set The World On Fire’ is sublime.]
I mentioned Tin Machine earlier and I think the comparison is useful. The two albums they made were not great by any means, but they had their moments and weren’t as disastrous as the reputation they have attained. And I really believe Bowie when he says he needed to make those albums. He had strayed from what made him who he was: he’d made a series of increasingly uninspired albums, he’d starred in some terrible films, he’d basically become Phil Collins. In the scheme of things, the rough ‘n’ ready Tin Machine albums were a means to an end: they re-piqued his interest in creating stimulating music and ushered in the 90s Bowie who produced avant-garde albums like ‘Buddha Of Suburbia’ and ‘1.Outside’, a frisky dabbling with drum ‘n’ bass, and then ultimately the genuine classic ‘Heathen’ in 2002.
After a decade out of the limelight, maybe Bowie finds himself in a similar position now as he did pre-Tin Machine. Next time around, knowing what a positive reception awaits him, I would love for him take some more chances and dabble in the margins again.
The final track here, ‘Heat’, is more experimental and also fits in neatly with the mournful tone that the lead single suggested. It’s dark and it’s great, but it’s Scott Walker-by-numbers.
So Bowie’s back. And the world is a better place because of it. And even if ‘The Next Day’ does have a whiff of Tin Machine about it, it is unlike anything else he’s made before, and there is innovation to be heard. I’m just hoping that it’s a springboard for something even better, maybe something more ambitious, for the next album, and the next … and another one …?