In case you haven't noticed, we love David Bowie dearly—the sudden news in January (on his 66th birthday no less) that he would be releasing his first new album in a decade, The Next Day, sent us spiraling into an all-Bowie musical wormhole (conclusion: Lodger is massively underrated, Black Tie White Noise isn't as bad as people say, and Scary Monsters really is a masterpiece). Since then, Bowie has released two singles from the new record, the elegiac "Where Are We Now?" and thumping "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" to whet our appetites—but last night, Bowie made the full album available to stream on iTunes (for a limited time). So of course we stayed up till 3 a.m. listening to it on repeat.
Obviously, we're working on too little sleep and not enough listens to say anything definitive about the album and its place in the Bowie canon, or even to begin unpacking the dense lyrics in these 14 tunes—HAVING SAID THAT... we have some impressions of the album, which we'll hesitantly say is one of two Bowie albums (along with the vastly under-appreciated Heathen) of the last 30 years that deserves to be spoken about in the same sentence as his greatest work. Maybe that's a bit of an overstatement, but The Next Day is his most vibrant album since 1980 (although Earthling certainly was lively too). What's really remarkable is looking at how he got here—so let's take a quick step back for some perspective.
Following the artistic achievements (and personal cleansing) of the Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes, Lodger), Bowie's career took a very dramatic turn in the early '80s—following Scary Monster, Bowie hooked up with Chic's Nile Rodgers to create Let's Dance, his most commercially successful album (featuring no less than three massive hit singles, the album is still his best selling one). Bowie was lost after that: the followup, Tonight, was a poor attempt at a carbon copy of Let's Dance, which was followed by his worst album, Never Let Me Down (a disastrous attempt to combine his art rock sensibilities with his Let's Dance persona, all smushed together with the worst '80s production imaginable).
After he gave up on his attempts to be fade into the background and become 'just another one of the boys' with Tin Machine (beware: this is the nadir of Bowie's recorded work), Bowie spent the '90s trying on new personas in an attempt to get his creative juices flowing. Black Tie White Noise embraced dance music to decent results, Outside saw him reunite with Brian Eno for a dark, industrial-tinged (overly-ambitious) album, Earthling was the sunny bass-and-drum heavy yang to that, and Hours saw Bowie finally embracing soft rock and nostalgia with synths galore. All of these albums were decidedly okay—none were what Bowie fans seemed to want.
The '00s brought with it a minor revival: spurred on by his record label rejecting Toy (re-recordings of some of his lesser-known '60s tunes), Bowie channeled that into the stark, brooding Heathen and its slightly glammier twin Reality. Both albums were a cut above (Heathen in particular), but both screamed "maturity." As good as they both were—and on songs such as "Sunday," "Heathen," "Slow Burn" and "Slip Away," they were great—both albums were somewhat controlled, somewhat distant, somewhat removed from the man who regularly topped himself and pushed mainstream popular music to new edges over the course of the 1970s.
But it seems the ten year break between Reality and now has really helped, because for the first time in decades, Bowie has found a way to push himself sonically while also leaning back into the types of jagged, youthful melodies that his fans have long craved. The album recalls various sonic strains of his career (the synths of Low, the martial percussion of Diamond Dogs, the glam doo-wop of Aladdin Sane all pop up quite a bit); but that's not to say the album is just retreading old steps. Overall, The Next Day seems informed by the anything-goes spirit of Lodger (which producer Tony Visconti has mentioned in interviews), and yet it sounds almost nothing like that album (to its credit).
The title track is led by a herky-jerky guitar line that recalls his late '70s work (think "Beauty and the Beast") and climaxes in one of the most rousing Bowie chorus' ever: "Here I am, not quite dying, my body left to rot in a hollow tree." The percussion of "Dirty Boys" alone is worth the journey—he makes a looping assemblage of stabbing saxes positively thrilling.
The two singles released (as good as they are—and "Where Are We Now" really is a beauty) are the worst representatives of the album—they give you no impression of just how hooky AND weird the album is, from the Ziggy Stardust-blessed acoustics of "Valentine's Day" to the frantic-yet-friendly "If You Can See Me," from the effervescent "Dancing Out In Space" to the tense "Love Is Lost."
The album concludes with its two greatest achievements: the torch song “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” a joyous melding of "Drive-In Saturday" and "Rock And Roll Suicide," the kind of huge emotional non-ballad ballad Bowie hasn't attempted since he was in his 30s (give or take a "Strangers When We Meet"). Like "Wild Is The Wind," he goes big and kills it. And then there's the albums final track, "Heat," the Scott Walker-aping mood piece that brings the album to an eerie, addictive close.
There are, of course, a couple lesser moments: "Boss Of Me" is maybe one-too-many midtempo pop songs in the middle of the record, a tad more straightforward then anything else on it. But even that tune is pretty enjoyable—there really isn't any fluff here. Somehow, Bowie has shed his skin once again—his latest reinvention is not a new coat of paint, but rather his ability to shake off all the cobwebs that had gathered by the time he recorded Hours. He's embraced his many different voices, and rediscovered his frisky side—and let's just hope there's more music where this came from.