There is hype, and then there is David Bowie’s first release in a decade hype. There is absolutely no comparison. None. Not. A. One. Thank the glam gods that it wasn’t unfounded!
If your only experience with Bowie’s back-catalog comes from a “best-of” compilation a la Changes, or pseudo-staples like Ziggy Stardust, ‘Heroes’, or Space Oddity, you’ve got another thing coming. This is the 21st century, get your shit together. The Next Day, which came out March 8th on Columbia, requires context. A lot of context.
Undoubtedly, critics and fans alike will be tossing around things like ‘reinventing,’ ‘revival,’ and ‘return to form’ – No. No. No. No. The Next Day absolutely does not see Bowie reinventing himself. Quite the contrary. It sees him producing material that is washed in rich socio-political cultural commentary. Concluding that The Next Day is a variation of socio-political commentary is not unfounded, considering Bowie has a history of rather overt political activism not only in his lyricism, but also in his interests.
With The Next Day, Bowie has taken on the role of interpreter, or all knowing elder – and he has the credentials (aka life experience) to pull it off. It’s no wonder then, that many songs on the album address existential crises specific to nearly every age group, from teens to the eldery. Is this the perfect marketing strategy? An attempt to appeal to all possible age demographics? Or is it just Bowie showing that yes, it happens to everyone and you are absolutely not alone. There is a next day. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
Just like his hairstyles, Bowie’s voice has not remained static over his career. The Next Day contains vocal performances that would fit equally well on Heathen, Scary Monsters, Low and Outside. Nobody should be left unsatisfied. And of course, there is the confidence, poise and conviction that is so trademark of late Bowie releases.
While moments of many Bowie vocal eras can be found on The Next Day, there are also sonic moments of every period – and this is a very, very good thing. There are traces of ‘Day In Day Out,’ ‘Slow Burn,’ ‘Teenage Wildlife,’ ‘Blackout,’ – you could go on and on. Similarly, if you look at The Next Day in the context one of his most recent works, the ‘lost’ (but now found) album Toy, many thematic twists will seem familiar. Yet what Bowie seemingly did not do with The Next Day, was draw directly from his back-catalog and fully reinterpret old songs a la Toy. Yes, he does look back to his personal, experiential history – and yes, he does look forward to what he perceives as a difficult future. We have the best of both worlds, and one wonderful moment at the end of “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” where the drum loop for “Five Years” repeats like a folkloric, ageless presentation of “Bowie as icon” – the only moment of musical retrospection, so brief you could miss it.
Content wise, “Love Is Lost” is likely the strongest track on the album, an anthem for today’s youth; “it’s the darkest hour, you’re twenty two, the voice of youth, the hour of dread.” Ever the voice of the generation, lines like “your country’s new, your friends are new, your house and even your eyes are new” practically vibrate with relevance. One might ask whether he is speaking anecdotally, or maybe even presenting some sort of message to his young daughter? “Heat” concludes the album with a vocal performance that’s more Scott Walker a la Drift than Bowie.
There are some instances of overreaching juxtapositions, as with “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, an anthem as well as a denouncement of celebrities. The video, which sees Bowie married to Tilda Swinton – the aesthetic equivalent of his younger self – has him dramatizing two entirely disparate personas.
With The Next Day, Bowie takes his career full circle by reapropriating the ‘Heroes’cover art. He’s placing a white stamp of ‘the next day,’ the reality of ‘the next day’ on top of his musical history. If he were never to release anything else, you shouldn’t complain. The Next Day is a wonderful and unexpected coda that is suggestive of finality, however passionately fans might wish otherwise.
This is a decade of renewed Bowie-mania. There is absolutely no way The Next Day will not sell well. Critics know it, fans know it, Bowie surely knows it. Yet it’s unfortunate that an artist must disassociate themselves from their old work, must disappear for ten years into anonymity in order for people to hear their new music free from any associations. Undoubtedly, critics would never give other artists in their late-career the same sort of benefit of the doubt and generosity that they have practically thrown at Bowie. He withdrew from public life completely and as a result regained a sense of mystery.
There is so much lyrical subtext to dig through in this release, you really can’t even begin to analyze it. Without a doubt, an outpouring of academic interpretations and biographical additions will be released in the coming years (months?). There’s a great deal of (ersatz) psychological analysis to be done with The Next Day, for as always with Bowie, who’s to say what’s confession and what’s character?