Review: David Bowie, “The Next Day”

I’m an occasional contributor to Third Way Magazine, a magazine of Christian comment upon culture which is available by subscription.

Here’s a review of “The Next Day”, the album by David Bowie, which originally appeared in the May 2013 issue.

Aging has been a preoccupation of David Bowie since the very beginning. It’s a metamorphosis much slower than his lightning quick development in the 1970s, from Ziggy to Thin White Duke to Berlin, but one he’s been aware of all along. “Look out, you rock n’ rollers / Pretty soon now, you’re going to get older”, he sang in 1971, and following a heart attack whilst touring his 2003 record Reality, he must have felt another change was about due. He effectively retired for the next decade, his output dwindling to an occasional guest vocal, his legacy complete.

However, within seconds of the start of The Next Day, we’re aware that someone has put something pretty exciting in Bowie’s tea, because he sounds engaged, creative, eager to take risks. The album opens with the thumps and screeches of the titular The Next Day, the angular chops reminiscent of his single Fashion, Bowie’s voice wheedling, hectoring and growling. The second track is even better, deepening the feeling of a creative corner turned – Dirty Boys is a quacking New Orleans funeral march by way of Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing.

Rather than the late-period cosiness of his previous three albums, where aping the style of his glory days aimed to remind the world of his relevance, The Last Day has an iconoclastic glee at tearing away bits of Bowie’s history and deconstructing them for nobler ends. Valentine’s Day builds a slice of ‘70s narrative pop from a Mick Ronson-esque crunchy guitar line and sha-la-la backing vocals, and (You Will) Set The World On Fire trips between punky rock and Bowie’s inherent pop sensibilities. Even the cover art takes the past and cheekily, unforgiveably, obliterates it with a square of nothingness – the past informing the present, but ultimately discarded.

Bowie’s lyrics here are dense with oblique imagery, even in the quieter moments – exemplified by Where Are We Now, a gorgeous, heart-aching ballad which echoes his experimental heights by namedropping Berlin landmarks. He seems to be once again drawing inspiration from his long-term hero and rival Scott Walker; most notably on Heat, the final track on the album which sees Bowie appropriating Walker’s haunted crooning. Walker found a way to turn his pop career into a vehicle for albums like The Drift – challenging, uncomfortable, explosive – and maybe Bowie is now ready to follow his lead.

You get the sense that Bowie needed to make this album – that old creative spark ignited in the face of becoming an institution, an influence, passive and inert. On the title track he snarls “Here I am, not quite dying / My body left to rot in a hollow tree”, and mortality hangs heavily over the album; his raging at the dying of the light giving him permission to follow his impulses. It’s this emotion that turns it from a late-career cash grab into something more vital.

Creativity is bound to wax and wane over a fifty year music career, and The Next Day is a cogent reminder that passion and invention aren’t solely the preserves of the up-and-coming. After a break from the album-tour-album cycle and a wander in the wilderness, Bowie sounds reinvigorated and alive – ready to try something new in a career that has seen so much change. Thrillingly, it suggests he isn’t finished yet, and there’s still an appetite there for turning and facing the strange.

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