David Bowie’s first album in 10 years, “The Next Day”, is baffling and brilliant. It plays like Bowie took all his various musical incarnations, from “Space Oddity” and “Aladdin Sane” to “Low” and “Reality”, fused them together and set it all to neutron bomb. That’s why the record feels both nostalgic and postmodern. On the title track he growls like P.I.L.-era Johnny Rotten; the sinister “Dirty Boys” opens with dissonant bass like a Tom Waits junkshop tune; and there are shades of Arcade Fire, Ballad Bowie, the Thin White Duke, The Pixies, The Beatles, dear old England, and “Lodger”. The record is all over the place stylistically, but still feels unified by tone, theme, and a matchless musical acumen. Throughout his career, Bowie has always been a man with his finger on the pulse, changing with the times, but finding a way to make it his own by acts of subversion. Ultimately, “The Next Day” is a record about the past, and how it’s always prologue to the future.
Just take the minimalist album cover art, which makes use of the “Heroes” cover from 1977, but scratches out the title, adding a big white block over the face of Bowie and a self-created font spelling out the new album title. It’s a supplanting of the past. What better way to show, visually, how one is always connected to the past, but somehow removed? “The Next Day” isn’t a great Bowie comeback, but rather the proof he never really left. And for all those younger music fans, this record contains a heavy dose of everything that makes Bowie one of the greatest living artists. The opening title-track echoes Bowie’s past, thumping along energetically, with a style that recalls 1972’s “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars”. And much like Bob Dylan had to do in “Early Roman Kings” (“I ain’t dead yet / My bell still rings”) last year, Bowie feels the need to announce he’s far from dead, in a wonderfully barking anthemic chorus, “Here I am / Not quite dying / My body left to rot in a hollow tree / Its branches forming shadows on the gallows for me” — ending it with a Shakespearean borrowing of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow” line re-written: “And the next day, and the next, and another day …” Time plays a major role on this record, and becomes another one of those giant topics in the Bowie arsenal.
One of the record’s biggest highlights is the Balladeer-Bowie beauty, “Where Are We Now?”, a contemplative walk through Bowie’s years in Berlin. He walks us through the imagery in his head, to Potzdamer Platz, the public square in Berlin; The Dschungel, a 1970s West Berlin nightclub; KaDeWe, a Berlin department store; Bösebrücke bridge crossing East and West Germany; and the wonderfully auditory sung sound of Nurnberger strasse. Bowie saves one of his best lines for that track, turning his walk down memory lane into the metaphor, “walking the dead”. It’s lovely. The German capital is ubiquitous to this record, as is the sense of looking from outside of one’s self. One of the two early releases, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, takes on the cult of celebrity, never quite defining a position, other than to revel in its oddity, taking on the viewpoint of both the follower and the followed. There are hints of this mockery too in the title tracks’ line about “The gormless and the baying crowd right there / They can’t get enough of that doomsday song.”
The video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonght)”, featuring Bowie and facial-doppelganger actress Tilda Swinton as a creepily married couple, mocks the folks buying tabloids at the supermarket, who think celebrity is somehow better than their own lives. But at the same time, Bowie unleashes a shot that capsulizes the allure and effect of celebrities themselves: “Burn you with their radium smiles and trap you with their beautiful eyes.” In a sense, this touches back on Bowie’s longtime obsession, authenticity (think “Fame”), which has spanned his early career through 2003’s “Reality”. What does it mean to be authentic? (“Your maid is new, and your accent too / But your fear is as old as the world.”) What does it mean to be “real”? There’s always been something otherworldly about Bowie, on and off his records, whether he’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, Major Tom, or the elegant soul-patched older Bowie — a kinder and gentler Thin White Duke. There’s lots of Baudrillard-esque ways to dissect the concept of image and simulacrum, whether Bowie includes his own incarnations in the discussion or fame and celebrity in a broader sense.
He still has much to say, even about highly uncomfortable subjects. “St. Valentine’s Day” is led by dark, deep, romantic guitar chords, and a ghostly cascade of female backing vocals, reminiscent of The Beatles. It’s a visit to a nondescript high school, seen through the eyes of a narrator who watches a kid who wants to take revenge on his school, presumably the preamble to a school shooting. Bowie has never shied away from these subjects. His mind, like an exploding grenade, sends the shrapnel flying. Over the years, he’s introduced many a novice to the likes of surrealist philosopher André Breton (touching on the theory of murder as art in “Outsider”), composer Richard Rogers and builder Phillip Johnson in “Thru These Architect’s Eyes” (contemplating music as a form of architecture), George Orwell in 1974’s “Diamond Dogs”, name-dropping writer Mishima on an extra track on “The Next Day” and author Vladimir Nabokov in this record’s anti-war reflection on mortality, “I’d Rather Be High”: “Nabokov is sun-licked now / Upon the beach at Grunewald.”
Those are the things that divide the crowd. Bowie’s fans, much like Dylan’s, love to decipher lyrics like they’re reading gnostic gospels which hold some secret meaning. Non-fans ruffle at the thought of difficult music. And in fact, that may have been the problem with the yawning reception of “Reality” and “Heathen”. Those two records were more seriousness than sweeping drama. But I’ve always been a listener who enjoys a bit of difficulty. Bowie’s records are littered with his personal interests, whether that means a subject from a book he’s reading or a mediation on space and time. Listening to this Bowie record, I had to look up the word “gormless” — and for some that’s a stumbling block to appreciating the man and his music. For me, it’s just Bowie, and something I’ve come to respect. There’s no dumbing-down of his craft. What Bowie fans come to love are the complexities of his music, an idiosyncratic effort to grasp at something universal — just as “The Next Day” is a wild contemplation of aging, love, popularity, music, status, death and sexuality. But the crux of the record centers on the ravages of time, and in the case of “How Does the Grass Grow?”, a time hit with violence: “Would you still love me if the clocks could go backwards? / How does the grass grow? Blood, blood, blood.” It’s a song that immediately reminded me of the themes of compatriot P.J. Harvey’s “The Glorious Land” — and its inversion of Englishness, a thing Bowie also does in “Dirty Boys”, calling up Finchley Fair and cricket bats. The rollicking “(You Will) Set the World On Fire” addresses days of pre-stardom, with a bit of self-deprecation, noting that the proof is in the magazines. It’s a nice touch of irony.
You can go right down the tracklist — and there’s not a dud in sight. Even the schlockiest songs like “Dancing Out in Space” (feeling like Arcade Fire) or “I’d Rather Be High” work beautifully. As majestic as the fiery music is, it might be the Ballad-Bowie that impresses most, with his graceful piano meditation, and cool strings-laden waltzing of “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”. It’s cityscape tightrope walk between suicidal depression and a type of artistic vampirism, which steals everything, and leaves the artist isolated. Reviewers may be tempted to call “The Next Day” an exercise in nostalgia, but it’s not that at all. It’s an acknowledgement of the past’s presence, and that everything is build upon it, like the skyscraper worlds Bowie has built during a career of song. Bowie closes out the record with a languid journey, in the elementally-named “Heat”, a vaporous song full of apocalyptic imagery, touching on death, love, perception and self-identity. It’s a beautiful ghost dance through time, memory, dreamscape and slipstream. It’s Bowie waltzing with Bowie.