The Short Story:
If you are new to David Bowie’s work, this isn’t a bad album to start with, but I might begin with some of his work from the 1970’s. If you are an established Bowie fan, this album is a must-listen. It’s some of Bowie’s best material in decades.
The Longer Story:
At the end of Paul Trynka’s Bowie biography “Starman,” he leaves with a speculative note. David Bowie never said he retired, but after his A Reality Tour, he disappeared from the music scene almost completely. This was unusual for the singer/songwriter – he would rarely go a few years without releasing an album in his decades-long career. It seemed like Bowie had genuinely retired, and Trynka’s biography leaves some hope that one day, Ziggy Stardust himself will awake from his slumber and release an album that would blow everyone away.
Then in early 2013, the world received word: David Bowie was not only working on another album after almost a decade of silence, but the album was already finished and coming out in a couple of months. The album announcement was accompanied with a video for “Where Are We Now?” The song is a slow, introspective ballad that creeps along, and it presents a problem: this is not a song for young, up-and-coming Bowie fans, and it doesn’t give listeners a good idea of what the album is. This is a song that reflects on Bowie’s life, and this is significant in the eyes of a fan because as a songwriter, Bowie rarely lets his guard down. Even personal songs like “Changes” are wrapped in heavy melodies and pop production. “Where Are We Now?” hints at an album that finds Bowie in his later years, reflecting back on his career. At this point, I was expecting THE NEXT DAY to be an album full of songs like “Thursday’s Child” – good, mellow, wise, but missing the spark that his earlier material had.
Fortunately, “Where Are We Now?” gives absolutely no indication as to what THE NEXT DAY sounds like. With its opening track (the title track), the album roars to life with energetic guitar riff not unlike something from Bowie’s Berlin triptych. Most of the music here is mid to up tempo, and a lot of it reminds of stuff that would have been recorded around 1975-1980. “If You Can See Me,” “Dancing Out in Space,” and “Dirty Boys” sound like they could have come from the same period as well. “How Does the Grass Grow?” has a choppy rhythm that feels pulled out of the 1980’s oeuvre. There are a handful of songs that sound strange, but only in the sense that they sound unfamiliar. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” and “Valentine’s Day” don’t have the quirk or glam that has defined most of Bowie’s songwriting, but they are great traditional rock songs with strong melodies. All of this is played with a renewed sense of interest: Bowie didn’t make this record because he was fulfilling a contract, and he’s not going through the motions. He doesn’t sound bored here – he sounds more excited than he has in a long, long time. The inclusion of long-time collaborator Tony Visconti as producer is icing on the cake.
The album finds Bowie pushing himself forward into new territory but with an eye on the past. Many of these songs do sound new and fresh, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these were actually written in Bowie’s days in Berlin. The album art encapsulates this: it’s the cover of HEROES, but with a giant white square obscuring his face. Even though Bowie might have (in his work in the 2000’s) tried to avoid reaching into his past, he’s realized he can’t. Instead of running from his past, and instead of embracing it, he does something different. He accepts the past and tries to one-up himself. There’s an acceptance from Bowie that we’ve seen from him in more of the recent albums, but nothing this clear eyed.
The album feels like it’s the most personal Bowie has ever released. “The Next Day” uses a chorus that begins with: “Here I am / Not quite dying / My body left to rot in a hollow tree.” The song is a triumphant (and knowing) return to form. Bowie isn’t rejecting his age here, he’s embracing it and using it as a personal challenge. “Where Are We Now?” is a meditation on a former life, back in Berlin in the late 1970’s. “Heat” has a few haunting moments in its slow, paranoid crawl as well.
For what it’s worth, THE NEXT DAY is the best (and most consistent) album that Bowie has released since 1980’s SCARY MONSTERS. This album feels like Bowie is comfortable with his own legacy; we see plenty of the trademark Bowie hallmarks here. I don’t feel like there’s any standout single like “Changes” or “Starman” or “Heroes,” but this album makes up for it in its consistency. I would recommend this album to any fans of Bowie’s, but I think that newcomers will find a lot here to enjoy as well. The fact that this album exists at all is a wonder, but the fact that it’s a great one is more than I can ask for as a fan.
Essential tracks to sample/listen: “The Next Day,” “Valentine’s Day,” and “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).”
Additional release information:
THE NEXT DAY was also released in a deluxe edition. The deluxe edition of the album comes with three songs that do not appear on the full version. These songs are “So She,” “Plan,” and “I’ll Take You There.” Out of these three songs, one of them is an instrumental: “Plan” appears on the “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” video as the opening minute and a half before the video begins proper. The remaining two tracks are good, but they don’t quite compare to the other songs on THE NEXT DAY. I’d recommend this version for the Bowie fanatic, but it isn’t essential listening.