A lot of people had kind of given up on David Bowie, presuming he’d retired from the business we call “show” after a heart scare during the “Reality” tour in 2004. Reality (2003) was his most recent album and it was, like the previous five or six albums before it, a mixed bag. Some good stuff, some not-so-good stuff, nothing as dire as Tonight (1984) or Never Let Me Down (1987) but no one record that was a mind-melting as Lodger (1979) or as thoroughly A-material as Scary Monsters (1980).
After the nadir of Never Let Me Down (which let everyone down) and the diverting-but-just-not-right Tin Machine experiment (1989-1991), Bowie seemed to start finding his way back to the 50s-influenced-but-artrock-filtered niche he excelled at. By the time he got to Hours (1999), he was back on track — though no longer the cutting edge of art-rock, more a follower. But he had regained his vision and spent much of the next eight years honing it with a great band and more enjoyable albums that contained at least enough fine songs to be worth the purchase.
Then, suddenly, in 2004 the lights went out. No more Bowie. A lot of us hung on for a long time, waiting for the return. After nearly a decade, all but the most die-hard had given up, wished Bowie well, and resigned themselves that Reality and perhaps a few more scraps like the iSelect compilation (2008, which had a few re-recorded parts for the version of the best song off Never Let Me Down, “Time Will Crawl”), Bowie was done. He had a new kid and a new wife, he’d certainly earned his legend status, leave him alone.
I never gave up. Every month or so I would hunt for new pictures of Bowie, any scrap to indicate what he was up to, how he was doing. There wasn’t much — it was more like nostalgically looking up photos of a long-dead friend. So on January 8th, 2013, I finally understood what it might feel like to Christians if Jesus returned. I felt my faith finally rewarded.
So, what of this Second Coming? Well, after listening to it (the deluxe version of the album) for a couple of weeks, and on the eve of its official release, here’s the bottom line: it’s great. It’s just like the cream of his last few albums, with almost all strong songs done in his 2000’s style. It’s like the 10 years hadn’t passed, though I do detect a slightly rougher voice than previously.
But the thing most of the other reviews I’ve seen of this record have completely missed is that this is not a dour or contemplative mope-fest from an aging rock star back from a death scare — not at all. This is Bowie having a great time doing something he obviously missed doing: putting together an album in the studio. Yes, there are a lot of mentions of death (and life) on this record — but no more so than, say, a Decemberists album. Our Bowie has a black-humour streak, people! How can you not have noticed this?
I’m sure David takes the ponderous reviews of his “looking back on his life and output in a reflective mood” or “a dance through his greatest albums” blather and has a good laugh … all the way to the bank. As I write this, The Next Day is #1 in 34 countries before its even in the shops. “Where Are We Now?” aside, this is a joyous record that revels in its own style and exudes friends having a good time singing about the end of the world. Why can’t some of these critics see the joy that’s written all over this record — or the obviously gleeful mischief in the way he announced it and has (lack of) publicized it? It’s a mystery to me — the video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is a total knee-slapper. This is not an album made by a wistful recluse — he’s only 66 for heaven’s sake, not 86 with terminal cancer!
The album opens with a solid, kick-open-the-door thump that serves as notice that Bowie is back, and the opening number — the title track to the album — even goes so far as to tackle the long-time absence head-on, bellowing “Here I am, not quite dying” in the chorus. It’s a jammy, kicky anthem with a cocky, sleazy Bowie announcing proudly that he’s not interested in spending his golden years warbling sell-out remakes of the Great American Songbook, thank you very much. This is an energetic, balls-out rocker that I’ll bet Robert Palmer would have loved to have covered back in his Power Station days.
Quickly shifting gears, we suddenly find ourselves in a dark New York underground nightclub, full of honking saxophones and a crime scene/beat noir vibe. Vocal effects, verses in a (for Bowie) bluesy growl and a higher-key chorus, this song prowls around and lets us know we’re in for a ride. It’s followed by the slicker, but much more “typical” (for this period of Bowie’s career) number, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” which I liked a lot better listening to the album than when I first saw the video. Like a lot of Bowie’s material, this one grows on you — and could have been written for Iggy Pop (probably everything you need to know about the song right there).
The video is very amusing — Bowie and Tilda Swindon swanning suburban while their youthful doppelgangers do the rock-star routine and stalk them in their subconscious. Watching Bowie as the “empty nester” reminds you of what a great actor he is, and the song is a more direct stab at social commentary than we’ve seen (not counting “Where Are We Now?”) in quite a while. Again, great energy and the video shows off the great humour behind it.
This rollercoaster really starts to gain altitude, however, with “Love is Lost” — an ode to teenage angst delivered credibly without a hint of either cynicism or creepiness. This is us starting the clanky climb up the first hill — building some tension we know is going to get released later. A snarky line — “Your country’s new, your friends are new, your house and even your eyes are new, your maid is new, and your accent too — but your fear is as old as the world” — promises great things to come. The song itself tells the tale of a 22-year-old girl who thinks “is this all there is” at the height of her youth and beauty, like we all did after our first heartbreak — not able to see that there’s so much more ahead, instead seeing only decline and eventually death. The quick fading calls of “what have you done” make a brilliant ending.
This is followed by Bowie’s initial release “Where Are We Now?” — a red herring that is as out of place on this album as it was for a first song release. It set the stage for a lonely, wistful walk down memory lane — exactly what this album isn’t! It’s a stunningly beautiful piece, mind you — I absolutely love it, and it brought me to tears the first time I heard it after such a long wait.
It’s full of loss and resignation — but beautiful like a funeral in a cathedral. It’s built like a Roy Orbison song, an unconventional structure that builds to a climax and then adds a lovely denouement. The finale hits like a burst of sun on a cold, cloudy day. This is the final moment on that roller coaster before you plummet down, that catching of the breath, the height of anticipation — and it is a beautiful thing. A great song to accompany a good cry, and a genuine reflection on a world — and man — that’s changed so much since those days in Berlin.
“Valentine’s Day” is the plummet down that first giant hill — not the ultimate release, Bowie’s saving that for later — but as rootsy a Bowie song as he’s done in ages. It really pulls from his 50s-influenced style of songwriting, throws in a black tale of a crushed character and dresses the whole thing in teenage-angst drag, right down to his “Hunky Dory” (1971) voice. It’s that bit when the front of the roller coaster is over the edge, but the back end is still coming over the hill.
“If You Can See Me” is the full-on plummet, a welcome return to Earthling-esque drum ‘n’ bass laced with medieval metaphors and beat poetry. It’s even got a bit of vari-pitched “Laughing Gnome” vocal in spots (what the –??). Stripped of it’s jungle pretensions, the song isn’t that far from the sort of thing he was doing in Labyrinth or Absolute Beginners. If you liked Earthling (and I did), you’ll like this.
Act Two of this record begins with the lightweight and obvious radio single “I’d Rather Be High,” which will remind his long-term fans of Hours. A pitch-perfect blend of “contemporary retro,” with a lovely military-themed lyric. I could totally see John Foxx doing this number, influenced as he is (as Bowie is) with a good Beatles-esque turn of a chorus every now and then. “Brilliant and naked, just the way that lovers look” is such a great line.
And if that song fails to chart, there’s always Plan B — the encroaching-back-into-Let’s-Dance-territory “Boss of Me,” again with the honking saxes and a full complement of backup singers. It’s a bit crunchier than anything he did in the early 80s, but it’s definitely a mainstream number — complete with a killer mid-eight, a touch of Nile Rodgers, and a sprinkle of Thin White Duke. It’s a clever take on a love song, and continues the radio-friendly theme of this “side” of the album.
Which takes us to “Dancing Out in Space” — you can tell from that title that this is meant as helium-filled fun. No death, no military, no literary allusions. Hell, with some work this could almost be a B-52’s number, that’s how fluffy it is. But unlike his failed attempts way back when, today’s commercial-pimping Bowie is a lot smarter about this stuff. He’s catchy without being pablum or ordinary. It may rub some of his art-rock fans the wrong way, but it’s again very 50s influenced and, well, fun. Natural fun. Like a Ringo track on a Beatles album, you know?
He goes a lot darker with “How Does the Grass Grow” — the title and chorus of which are based on a chant from bayonetting soldiers — but the song is still relentlessly sunny and catching, framing the kill-call chorus with The Shadows’ “Apache” and plenty of ya-ya-yas. Despite the black tone, this is another song I can picture the Goblin King singing to his muppet-filled court. From the drums to the vocals, it’s all very 60s — this is probably Bowie’s idea of a dance number, and even has a faux-Fripp opening! One of my favourites on the album.
Putting all the cards on the radio table, we come to “You Will Set the World on Fire” — a perfect artifact from the 70s, with Bowie posing as the LA-sleazebag promoter promising some young starlet the moon and stars. “I can work the scene, babe, I can see the magazines” — this comes free with fantastic visuals in your mind of the ultimate rock movie, plus Bowie hits some impressively high notes here. It’s a total rave-up just this side of glam, with tons of energy. A perfect cross of his 70s and 80s work — and that works a lot better than you might think. Fabulous.
And now, the non-finale: the stunning, fragile, haunting “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.” I know why this wasn’t the last song on the regular edition of the album — it’s too much of a sign-off, too emotional to be the last ringing chord, might have led to some suicides. Yeah, seriously.
It’s his signature Ziggy ballad all over again — Tim Curry is dying that he didn’t get to sing this in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. You can feel the searing spotlight, the ghost of Marc Bolan, and hear where the Nits get so much of their magic. This is the most purely glam thing since Bowie had Spiders for friends, featuring acoustic guitars to balance the sound flawlessly. This is perfect. Utterly perfect — it doesn’t get any better than this.
The regular edition of the album ends instead with “Heat,” a Scott Walker tribute. It’s a typical Bowie move to end the album on an enigmatic note. “Heat” is a lot like “The Electrician” and would have been comfortable on Outside, or maybe The Buddha of Suburbia. Brings the curtain right down.
The extended edition of the album adds three further tracks. The first, “So She” is another lightweight but catchy number that’s more synth-heavy than the rest of the record. It is neither great nor bad — pleasant and good, and a minute or so shorter than the average song running time up to this point. Reminds me of the group Komeda, but with Bowie vocals. To be frank, it’s a b-side. The second bonus track, “Plan,” is an instrumental and again is not unpleasant, but doesn’t take us anywhere and just kind of … lays there. An odd choice for an album track.
Luckily, the last bonus track redeems it all. A sound that recalls Scary Monsters beautifully, “I’ll Take You There” is another straight-ahead rave-up that rocks as hard as bands a third his age, just one more catchy, fabulous reminder that Bowie ain’t laying down just yet. You reach the end of the record recharged and ready for more. But another replay will have to do. This is an album that lives up to its hype, and hopefully marks the beginning of a new period of productivity. For 51 minutes, all is right with the world.