Well, it appears that with The Next Day, David Bowie’s highly touted first studio album in a decade, he has thrown the public yet another curve ball. That’s a compliment, not a complaint. We might as well stop guessing what Bowie going to do next; we’re going to get it wrong. He’s just too slick.
When Bowie surprised the world with the announcement of this upcoming record at his 66th birthday a few weeks ago, he released the lead single “Where Are We Now”. It’s a mellow, highly reflective tune, well-produced but a little tired-sounding, leading many of us to believe we were going to get an elder-statesmen album in the spirit of Cash’s American series, a retrospective of sorts.
Now it becomes clear that song was a total decoy. This album only looks backward a little bit. Most of it is looking forward. As though Bowie had never taken the last ten years off.
We should have taken the hint from the title and the album cover: a placard with the words The Next Day superimposed over his 1977 Heroes album cover. Heck, that doesn’t speak of a recovering heart-attack victim consoling himself by writing songs from his rocking chair. It speaks of a new chapter. And that’s just what the album is—a continuation of the incredible artistry that made David Bowie an icon in the first place.
Indeed, there’s enough energy in the opening title track to make you forget that this is, in fact, a man who had to cancel a tour because of a heart attack. “Here I am, not quite dying,” he shouts in the chorus, determined to shatter the illusion the public had embraced of a withering former glam-rock idol clinging to life by a thread. If the opening weren’t enough to accomplish this, the next 16 tracks should demolish that illusion for good. From the driving, conviction-laden “Love Is Lost” to the manic, complex rhythms of “If You Can See Me” to the snarky-lyrics-set-over-a-solid-groove of “I’d Rather Be High” to the ethereal “Dancing Out In Space” to the rocking, guitar driven “(You Will) Set the World on Fire,” Bowie handles all of it with the grace of a pro and the passion of someone half his age.
A couple of reality checks here. First of all, if you’re expecting another re-invention from the chameleon, don’t. Perhaps the only other feature of this album that is remotely retrospective is the fact that Bowie freely and proudly touches on his previous personas while moving forward musically. This isn’t another character or genre jump we need to get used to; it’s sort of a musical composite of all the great musical seasons of David Bowie’s career—and that should please many fans.
Secondly—David Bowie is 66 years old, and at times it does reflect in his voice, if not in his energy. Indeed, if he had taken the winding-down, rocking-chair path, it would have made him seem even older, and we’d have bought the record out of pity. But as it is, Bowie’s creative genius is so unfettered here that the vocal wear-and-tear simply does not matter. Other artists his age simply couldn’t have pulled this off—but as we already know, Bowie isn’t the typical artist.
Bottom line—with The Next Day, David Bowie comes across not as someone who is “back”, but as someone who never left. Rife with emotion and creative diversity, this record can easily stand with any of his other master works, and likely will. Here’s to a new chapter for a great artist who is not just “not quite dying,” but obviously is very much alive.