INSTA-REVIEW: David Bowie’s The Next Day


BY STEVE VOLK Nearly 10 years gone, David Bowie is back. Huzzah? The verdict is FUCK YES! The takeaway here is that Bowie is finishing his career, cruising toward his finish line—whether this be his last album or not—the same way he created his brand: Fearless and peerless. Sure, Dylan delivered Dylan-y classics in his 60s and Leonard Cohen never wavered. But who, at 66-years-old kept venturing this far out onto artistic limbs, searching for sounds he’s never made before?

No one.

Before this tour de force is over, Bowie recalls past glories and creates new ones. Shouts martial chants and laments war. He hits on a chorus  — “Where do the boys lie? Mud! Mud! Mud! How Does the Grass Grow? Blood! Blood! Blood!” —  that delivers real chills and begs to be heard again. And again. And again. He mourns his own coming death and renders it clear, we all got it coming, kid. He does jazz, arena rock, burlesque, 50s balladeering and electronica…the list isn’t finished and, I suspect, neither is he.

Taken in context with his career, it isn’t a stunning return to form (frankly, he did that already and nobody paid attention). But it is an incredible comeback just the same—an album filled with life that keeps bumping, fiercely, into death, death, death, and invites it—with a doo wop and a boo wah and several showstopping choruses—to give us a kiss.

In the context of the larger world of our culture and popular music, a world in which celebrity is bestowed on people willing to debase and embarrass themselves by eating animal penises on a reality show, a world in which 16 year old kids who never wrote a song compete for our affection and our admiration and a recording contract by singing Karaoke, this is a reminder of what’s possible. You know, artistry.

Dig it.

The Next Day
Tough sledding, as openings go—a song more challenging than inviting, till some of the vocals start poking through the shards of guitar dominating the mix. The song is theoretically, at least, about a medieval tyrant. But when Bowie fairly cackles, “They can’t get enough of that doomsday song,” it’s pretty clear he’s recalling past glory, the whole blazing “Rock n’ Roll Suicide” thing come Ziggy-ing to life. The chorus, “Here I am, not quite dying, my body left to rot in a hollow tree” is too fierce, on first listen, to be liked yet seems likely to haunt.

Dirty Boys
Bump and grind sax, Bowie comes on like Tom Waits here. He’s never sounded like this, either vocally or musically—and he sounds great. This slowly stomping piece is at once seductive and so dirty I got a hard one just listening. Minimalist and concise, it strikes a major blow for the three-minute pop song.  Canny move, after the sonic assault of the first song, to provide sexy ear candy.

The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
Released just this Tuesday as a single, this number is winningly urgent, with propulsive, fuzz-toned guitars and an earworm chorus that takes forever to arrive and, likewise, threatens not to let go. Three songs in, this album is starting to sound like a winner. Lots of rock stars have bitched about fame, including Bowie, on a song called, you know, “Fame,” but leave it to him to turn the complaint on its head and complain about stars from the point of view of the average consumer—besieged by pseudo-people who want us to buy their shit and love them, too.

Love Is Lost
Four tracks in, Bowie is clearly alternating louder rock tunes with some wide-open sonic spaces. It sounds odd to say, after a career in which Bowie has released 24 albums of original recorded music, but he’s already ventured into territory he’s never quite visited before. This is shimmering electronic blues.  “Your country’s new…and your maid is new…and your accent, too, but your fear is as old as the world,” Bowie croons, seemingly attacking Madonna. Hard not to like that. And the intensity escalates till the whole thing is a wash of vocals. Bowie vocals. “Love Is Lost,”—love is found. This is another great track.

Where Are We Now

The melancholy insta-classic with which Bowie made his surprise return on his birthday this January, this song is very different than anything else on the album yet seems to fit perfectly after the hustling rhythms of the early tunes, a much needed downshift after the hairpin turns have been survived. A hipster friend of mine rejected this song after one listen, claiming the recitation of German place names in the verses was just pointless. “So what? Everyone knows you’ve been to Berlin.” But the Berlin stuff is metaphor, a feint to keep the hell hounds off his trail. Trust me on this: The soaring end, “As long as there’s me, as long as there’s you” carries all the desperation and doomed gratitude of a married husband and father who touched the slick, scaly skin of his own mortality.

Valentine’s Day

The most straight-forward tune thus far, redolent of Bowie’s early 60s material, this track is sha-la-la lovely.

If You Can See Me

The first track that sounds like true experimentation—anti-melody over a skittering rhythm and the kinds of shifting time signatures common to Jimi Hendrix and jazz. Frankly, I do not know what’s happening. Am I upside down? Probably. No, I’m in a washing machine. Or not. Whoa. It’s over? Good.

I’d Rather Be High
“I’d rather be high…than training these guns on those men in the sand,” Bowie croons. It may be that he’s always been best conveying alienation and despair. Each time the jagged verse gives way to the sweeping chorus the soldier at the heart of the song seems to move a little further away from reality and the song gains a lovely sense of lift.

Boss of Me
Another bump and grind sax serves as a perfect foil. Pop music designed for the stripper pole. I’m buying.

Dancing Out In Space
Um, a song with a title like this is a loaded one for Bowie: His career is so closely associated with all things alien and spacey. But every time he ventures out into the starry skies he seems to bring his A-game and… this? On first listen…and, I confess, third…is the Man at His Best. If astronauts were assigned the task of jitterbugging on a space station—you know, just to see how that would work out—they’d have to use this song.

How Does the Grass Grow?

Bowie channels the hook from The Shadows’ hit “Apache.” And yes, you want to hear it. Again and again.

(You Will) Set The World On Fire
Producer Tony Visconti calls this number first-rate arena rock. But it’s sneakier than that, coming from left of center till the chorus hits like an ice pick to the skull. And then just keeps smashing away. Till there is nothing left. But the giddy joy of a dying brain. Releasing loads of DMT.  Thoughtless and undeniable and glorious. Remember Heath Ledger’s Joker calling to Batman in the street to run him over? Yes. Just like that. Hit me. And hit me again.

You Feel So Lonely You Could Die

50s doo wopping. High notes, stacked on high notes. Only Bowie could take an image like “I can see you as a corpse, hanging from a beam” and make it sound so romantic. This is the show stopper, the one that draws gasps. The track closes with the lonely drumbeat of Ziggy’s “Five Years.” And. Well. Balls. The good kind. It’s a tricky thing recalling past glories, which invite comparisons between then and, you know, now. But in this case, Bowie puts over a song—right here in the present—that can carry the weight.

A doomy closer, this is bleak, moody Scott Walker territory and deeply elliptical. “I tell myself, I don’t know who I am,” Bowie sings. Hard not to think of his bio. The kid, really, who lost himself in characters like Ziggy and then cocaine. “I am a seer, but I am a liar…” he sings. But more intriguing is the line that comes from nowhere: “My father ran the prison,” which he turns into a mantra, repeating it and caressing it like it’s The One Fact That Explains It All. The final track of his comeback leaves us drenched in sweat—sexy, salty sweat—and mystery. And wanting more. Welcome back, David. Now, please stay.