David Bowie: The Next Day
There have already been a slew of high profile albums released in 2013, most preceded by splashy announcements and cryptic Twitter updates designed to build anticipation and interest. Yet perhaps the most exciting – and wildly unexpected – came from David Bowie, the godfather of glam rock and epitome of 1970s cool. On his 66th birthday the legend quietly announced that he had completed an album of new material – his first since 2003’s Reality. After a decade of near seclusion with most fans convinced that Bowie had retired from music, his latest effort, The Next Day, was an extremely welcome surprise. One of the most innovative, malleable and exciting performers to have emerged in the 1970s, Bowie’s legacy and place in the annals of music history is firmly established; he had absolutely nothing to prove with this new album, something that becomes immediately apparent upon an initial listen. The Next Day is a raw and complex effort, replete with an emotional intensity that is only possible when a musician is passionately committed to the project. Clearly Bowie had something left to say.
As he’s always had a great understanding of the importance of visuals, the provocative art for the The Next Day features an adaptation of Bowie’s famed 1977 Heroes album cover with most of the central figure obscured with a large rectangle bearing the new album’s title. In this cheeky reference, the Bowie of the past is unreachable and elusive yet the artist is acknowledging that it’s impossible to consider his new material without referencing his illustrious history. And this simple, yet weighty image sets the tone for the entire album. While there are moments throughout that seem reminiscent of Bowie at different stages in his career – Ziggy Stardust camp, Heroes-era angst, Let’s Dance pop – overall the effort feels fresh and new, an amalgamation of Bowie’s numerable incarnations. The poignant and introspective first single off the album, “Where Are We Now?” is somewhat of an anomaly; the song sees Bowie revisiting his time in Berlin in the 1970s while repeating the line “just walking the dead.” The ballad is staggering in its beauty and simplicity. While the album in its entirety has a melancholic feel the remaining songs – which cover a range of topics from war to murder and ghosts – are outward looking, with Bowie assuming, as usual, a variety of personas. “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” one of our favourite tracks on the album, is Bowie at his “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” best. The disturbing lyrics, “I can see you as a corpse/hanging from a beam,” and evocative chorus will trouble you for days.
The more uptempo “I’d Rather be High” belies its subject matter – a burnt out soldier returning from war, while “Dancing Out in Space” with its poppy guitar and synth harkens back to Bowie’s 1970s exuberance. The variation in tempo and musical styles throughout makes for a very compelling and multifaceted album and the videos released in support of The Next Day are just as innovative. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” directed by Floria Sigismondi and starring the inimitable Tilda Swinton is a surreal romp that is more akin to a short film than a conventional music video and shows that Bowie’s creative energy and sense of humour remain firmly intact.
This is a haunting album – both musically and lyrically – that offers something new with each play; after spending some time with The Next Day it becomes apparent just how superficial most pop music is today. It’s always tricky when a music legend releases a new album late in life as the expectations are impossibly high and comparisons to past greatness inevitable. Is this Bowie’s best album of all time? Hardly. But it will definitely hold up as one of the best releases of the year.