The Next Day
Mar 12, 2013 Web Exclusive
We're only a few months in, and 2013 has already been an outstanding year for long-reclusive artists to crawl out from their hiding places. Unlike My Bloody Valentine's similar release of m b v, rumors hadn't even existed of a new David Bowie record before The Next Day's announcement on the artist's 66th birthday. After a decade of fan speculation that Bowie might be done or—worse—dying, it seems our fears were for naught and our patience has been rewarded.
It would be cheap and easy to say that Bowie sounds on The Next Day as if he'd never been gone at all, but it wouldn't be true. As the album's announcement explained, all the time away was so that Bowie could wait to record until he'd had "something to say as opposed to something to sell." It's probably fair to say that there was a whole lot of selling going on in the years leading into Bowie's exit from the stage. The 23 years of output from 1980's Scary Monsters—arguably Bowie's last essential record—to 2003's Reality-heretofore his final release—were very spotty. While those two decades had their share of highs ("Modern Love," "Under Pressure," collaborations with Nine Inch Nails and Jim Henson), it also packed several career lows (The Buddha of Suburbia, the music video for "Dancing in the Street") and a lot of mediocre material (Tonight, nearly everything Tin Machine-related). Thankfully, Bowie's break worked as it was purposed: The Next Day is the first time in a long while—going back well beyond his recent 10-year hiatus—that Bowie has sounded this consistently inspired.
Bowie lifts bits and pieces from the various eras of his career, but no song feels like an overt throwback. There are hints of spaceman Bowie, balladeer Bowie, and even disco Bowie, but never does The Next Day sound anything but modern. Frequent collaborator Tony Visconti has returned, and his production is packed as full as you'd expect; there isn't any wasted space in the mix, between the percussion, background vocals, gnarly guitar, and mellow strings. Lyrically, Bowie's still a master of narrative and mood. In the unsettlingly upbeat "Valentine's Day," Bowie plays witness to a school shooting: "Valentine told me who's to go.... The teachers and the football star." There's paranoiac Bowie in "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," the record's ominous second single: "And they know just what we do/That we toss and turn at night/They're waiting to make their moves on us/But the stars are out tonight." The warped "I'd Rather Be High" is written from the point of view of a World War II soldier: "I'd rather be dead/Or out of my head/Than training my guns/On those men in the sand/I'd rather be high." The songwriter who dreamed up such memorable rock 'n' roll characters as Major Tom and the man who sold the world certainly doesn't let us down here.
Though it's been 10 years since his previous release, The Next Day is Bowie's most consistent record in twice as much time. And with much luck, it doesn't sound as if we'll have to wait until the thin white duke's 76th birthday for a follow-up. While Bowie has sworn off ever doing another interview, his producer has said they could begin work on another album as early as this year. Until Bowie is on speaking terms with us again, we're going to have to take Visconti's word for it. (www.davidbowie.com)
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