Recorded over the past two or three years in complete secrecy, and heralded by the sudden appearance in January of the single “Where Are We Now?”, David Bowie’s The Next Day may be the greatest comeback album ever.
It’s certainly rare to hear a comeback effort that not only reflects an artist’s own best work, but stands alongside it in terms of quality, as The Next Day does. The fact that producer Tony Visconti has worked with Bowie since the Seventies undoubtedly helps cement the connection with his earlier work – there are constant frissons of recognition while listening to these songs, as if Bowie is deliberately mining memories. That notion is reinforced by the typically artful cover, which takes the original sleeve for the “Heroes” album and partly obscures its image with a simple sans-serif font title panel and, on the rear, a similarly blunt track listing, making the new album a sort of palimpsest of history.
But if the design and sound suggest a link with the past, the songs – save for “Where Are We Now?” – are all about today, as might be expected from such an astute barometer of societal and cultural mores as Bowie. Visconti has suggested in interviews that some songs, notably the title track, were prompted by the singer’s recent immersion in books about medieval history; but whatever their origins, the songs seem to refract elements of the modern day, offering sometimes brutal commentaries on contemporary events.
And there’s a sleek, muscular modernity about the arrangements, mostly recorded with such Bowie stalwarts as guitarist Gerry Leonard, bassist Gail Anne Dorsey and drummer Zachary Alford, with telling contributions from rock guitarist Earl Slick and avant-rock soundscape guitarist David Torn. The result is an album that conveys, with apt anxiety or disgust, the fears and troubles of a world riven by conflict and distracted by superficial celebrity.
The Next Day
Supposedly written about some medieval tyrant, the title track employs a stalking funk-rock groove striated with angular, trebly guitars and bound to marching strings to depict a figure pursued by a baying mob who “can’t get enough of that doomsday song” and who can “work with Satan while they dance like saints”. The trace of Johnny Rotten in Bowie’s delivery reveals the underlying bitterness of a situation which, inevitably, doesn’t end well: “Here I am, not quite dying, my body left to rot in a hollow tree.”
A slow, jerky trudge of brusque, visceral guitars and rudely honking baritone sax, this finds Bowie musing about living “something like Tobacco Road” and heading off to “Finchley Fair” in search of excitement, however guttersnipe-low: “When the die is cast and we have no choice, we will run with dirty boys.”
The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
The second single from the album features another nervy, angst-ridden vocal, as Bowie reflects on the eternal status of celebrity, noting, “The stars are never sleeping/Dead ones and the living.” The gently scudding groove is one of the album’s most absorbing, laced with strings, clarinet and Visconti’s descending recorder line lurking behind the guitars. Contains some of Bowie’s best lines in ages, particularly his warning of the dangerous magnetism of stars who “burn you with their radium smiles and trap you with their beautiful eyes”.
Love Is Lost
“Oh what have you done, what have you done?” wails an abject Bowie over a soundbed whose bitter guitar, organ and plodding bass lend a fatalistic slant to a broadside at someone whose possessions are new, “...but your fear is as old as the world.”
Where Are We Now?
The acclaimed single stands apart from the rest of The Next Day: rather than brusque and angry in tone, it’s a piece of almost oceanic melancholy. An enervated reflection on Bowie’s Berlin days, it’s full of references to his favourite haunts, viewed through a veil of watery, reverbed guitars like misted eyes, while the subtle touches of autotuning give the voice a delicate fragility appropriate to the ruminations of “a man lost in time... just walking the dead.”
The earliest track recorded for The Next Day, this has nothing to do with 14 February, but rather offers a mocking depiction of a bitter nobody who may well have “gone postal” against the more popular kids at school, couched in one of the album’s most engaging pop arrangements.
If You Can See Me
From one of its most appealing songs to its most antagonistic, a hurried bustle of noise featuring a piercing keyboard monotone at nerve-shredding pitch. Another song seemingly inspired by Bowie’s recent fascination with medieval history, this bowls along pell-mell, a torrent of impressionistic lines and threats from an invader who “will take your lands...slaughter your beasts...I am the spirit Greed”.
I’d Rather Be High
Set to a jazzy shuffle bound with a sinuous guitar line, this finds one of the poor bloody infantry regretting the youthful wrong turn that led him to his embattled foxhole: “I’d rather be flying, I’d rather be dead, than out of my head and training these guns on those men in the sand.”
Boss Of Me
The honking baritone sax from “Dirty Boys” reappears in bathetic-ironic mode to underscore the plight of a hapless lad stuck on the spike of feminism: Who’d have ever dreamed,” he marvels plaintively, “that a smalltown girl like you would be the boss of me?”
Dancing Out In Space
David Torn’s interweaving guitar whines lend a miasmic, psychedelic flavour to the prancing, Motown-style funk-rock groove of one of the album’s hookiest, catchiest trifles, a celebration of dance: “No one here can beat you/Dancing out in space.” An obvious future single.
How Does The Grass Grow?
A phrase apparently used to assist in bayonet practice – “How does the grass grow? Blood, blood, blood!” – is given an absurdist makeover by the addition of the hook motif from The Shadows’ “Apache”, sung as a falsetto “yah-yah-yah-yah”. Weird doesn’t quite cover it.
(You Will) Set The World On Fire
A terse guitar riff in the style of early Kinks carries this song about ambition and fame, sung as if by a manager flattering his client: “I can hear the nation cry!” Period references set it firmly in the Sixties, notably the claim that “Kennedy would kill for the lines that she’s written/Van Ronk says to Bobby, ‘She’s the next real thing!’” Another obvious potential single.
You Feel So Lonely You Could Die
As the album cruises to its close, the tone becomes more melancholy with this melodramatic, epic evocation of someone’s loneliness and suicidal depression. “I can see you as a corpse, hanging from a beam... Oh, see if I care, Oh please make it soon,” sings Bowie with exquisite, beautiful poise. “Oblivion shall own you, death alone shall love you.”
The album closes with the Scott Walkeresque vocal portents and apocalyptic tone and imagery of “Heat”, in which acoustic guitar, strings and guitar noise track the protagonist’s search for his own identity through intimations of guilt and shame, finally resolving into a duality that might stand as the motto for the album as a whole: “I am a seer, but I am a liar.” Which of course, is equivalent to saying “I am a storyteller.”
'The Next Day' is set for release on 11 March in standard and deluxe versions