Review: David Bowie, 'The Next Day'
66-year-old songwriter's first album in a decade
David Bowie, at first, presents his new album “The Next Day” as a dismantling of his earlier work. With an album design that literally puts a white box over the photo of Bowie’s face on the cover of his album “Heroes,” he turns fans’ “hero” into a blank slate, The title “The Next Day” is a phrase from a script or the new chapter from a fiction, something one would say after “Reality” strikes.
But it’s not all introspection and decomposition. It’s about moving around, as Bowie still dons different guises, playing a lot with being old and being young, being of this earth and not and all at once. And from song one, he sounds like he’s working hard, short of the times when he’s not having an outright blast with his dichotomies.
Bowie worked primarily with players from his last effort, out a decade ago and with Tony Visconti again behind the decks, so there’s an openness and comfortability from ballad to space-rocker to the operas in his head. It allows for him to pull off schlocky guitar parts on the title track and the fun-dumb hat/bat noise/boys rhyming schemes on “Dirty Boys,” all the way up to the album’s highest point “If You Can See Me.” Wrought and fought for, that track has the warped, dogged, alien vibrato and balls-out crescendo that makes 10 months or 10 years of wait worthwhile. “I will slaughter your kind,” and how.
It’s songs like it, and dramatic phrases, little insular jokes and references that come off as long-gestating ideas he’s turned over his knuckles for a few years. Face value, some songs like power-pop number “Valentine’s Day” are simple, until you consider its deadly subject. “I’d Rather Be High” keeps things skyward, though with one foot back on earth with clean, measured guitars, as the 66-year-old puts on a young man’s mask in order to mock him. “How Does the Grass Grow?” bears the burden of the 4 p.m. slump (on an album of 14 tracks, it’s tough to be 11) but in stride, Bowie turns his nightmarish nursery rhyme into interesting layers for guitar solos, flanger and flat vocal dissonances. “I gaze in defeat at the stars in the night,” he laments-slash-romantically sighs, countering his “gaze at my hotel wall” like the fabulous hammy sonofaqueenbitch he is.
Others songs require less decoding. “Love Is Lost” has an uninteresting vocal line, but contains deft, simple prose about a 22-year-old, as a guitar urgently bleats like a clock: “The darkest hour and your voice is new / love is lost / lost is love… your country’s new / your friends are new / your house and even your eyes are new… but your fear is as old as the world.” This, of course, wouldn’t work coming out of the mouth of someone who’s actually 22. Bowie’s lyrics here not only carry the weight of his age, but his own gravitational pull.
I’d say skip “Boss of Me,” despite its nose-thumbing bari sax, and skip cordial “Dancing Out in Space,” which may as well be a Bowie metronome to put everyone to sleep. Bowie’s muscular, insistent bark on “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” has a few fine moments in its distinctive whoo-whoos, but he’s singing as much as Lou Reed emotes.
“Where Are We Now” is among the growers, as a sad, slow dance amid an atlas of locales “lost in time” to the singer, oddly personal and alienating at once. But one of the more curious songs is closer “Heat,” which doesn’t seem autobiographical at all. “My father ran the prison,” he sings stoically, “I tell myself I don't know who I am.” It’s a wittily dismissive anti-climax, especially minutes after posing as the Emissary for Other Famous People on “(You Will) Set the World On Fire,” telling his mentee, “You will set the world on fire” -- so much tambourine – “You’re in the boat, babe, we’re in the waah-taaah.”
Most of these are open-ended, up for the listener’s own interpretations. But anybody who’s ever listened to another David Bowie album won’t help but hear some cross-references and repeated sounds from the British songwriter’s canon. The majority of it satisfies, even when it frustrates in its galling new characters and its stubborn old oddities. With more than four decades of albums under his belt, he’s got nothing but context, and at a mere/considerable 66 years of age, he’s got nothing but time to do it again.