Review Summary: “because there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it”
It was never really about Ziggy. I didn’t go into record stores looking for science fiction or long, tangled storylines, and I didn’t listen to “Lady Stardust” for glam. I just liked piano ballads. I was going for David Bowie when I went through a catalogue that was categorically his
, trying to find a weirdly expressed pop song that would answer big questions. They didn’t have to be terrestrial. They could be about Bob Dylan for all I cared. I never distinguished the young humming face on Hunky Dory
from the alien that was half for half on this planet and another. Both people played the same kind of songs with the same creaking verses and the same booming choruses. I could pick him out forever, but I never really noticed the masks.
Without a mask we don’t know how to approach a Bowie album. The Next Day
inspires a typical “surprise!” narrative in us instead. Can you believe it’s so good, The Quietus’ stellar review rang, before the rest of us had even a whiff of it; that it might be great, even, something above and beyond what he’s capable of in what we continue to guess is the twilight of his career. And how can it remind us of everything we love about him while he removes himself from all of it? It’s so specific, too – the artwork is laughable on a first glance, but the joke stops when you realise he’s literally crossing out the legend in him. Bowie refusing to pose, for the first time in his career, is like watching Bowie unmask. The Next Day
asks us not to see him as history’s best, as he instead retires to himself
. Oh, there’s nobody on the front cover? That’s the most candid you’ll get him. All this before you’ve even opened the album up.
This is a new era, after all. The Next Day
opens up a new generational gap of its own, removed even from Reality
, an album it will be invariably compared to as we watch a late artist play a steady hand. Ten years is enough time for anyone to dupe old material and rehash their music, though, and the secrecy surrounding the recording process makes even less an extravaganza of just what Bowie’s comeback was going to be. The Next Day
is worth only the content of its songs, which are pretty good, great even
; this isn’t going to lend itself to liner notes about artful sociopaths or be a “genre” album, even if Bowie’s proved he can still play with fire later in the game.
The identity Bowie takes on The Next Day
is a man sadly picking up the good life and not knowing what to do with it, like the feeling you get when you return to your home town and have grown away from everyone you knew. “Where Are We Now?” looks for the answers but doesn’t really seek to hope. Its quietly exploding chorus asks a question almost conversationally, but trails off into distance like an inevitability he’d long internalised. Even for what we’d term “piano ballad,” it’s an excruciatingly slow track, one I completely misread before I heard it sandwiched into this rockish record. Whatever Bowie feels on “Where Are We Now?” he feels in slow motion. You might think it’s war, and it certainly landmarks it – but The Next Day
lingers around the damn horrifying peace one can make with themselves.
Around the place The Next Day
acts as a rock album, as much as that word can have descriptive meaning in this era – not to speak of emotions, instead a loudness and aggressive intent – but between his roaring music, we see Bowie cracking under pressure, often anxious and otherwise wearily accepting. You can hear the lethargy implemented strongest in between his racing in and occasional watchful eye (“The Stars Are Out Tonight” is fast-paced because, as its majestic video suggests, he feels tracked). “Where Are We Now?” closes with Bowie playing desperately emotive guitar music, rolling back through the ambiguity of his years as the song eases its way out underneath. The Next Day
startles most when it doesn’t invigorate a comeback, when the flame’s burning out and the ‘rock’ songs are falling into decay. That’s where Bowie finds new ground in an old sound – “Valentine’s Day,” with its giddy, declarative choruses, is to die for, but it sounds like it came into this world ready to end, its guitar riffs ready to become phrases among a sea of many lost causes – it’s about a high school shooter, which is rare content as far as up-tempo Bowie songs go, but it barely moves in on its subject. This isn’t an angry Bowie, but one who’s read enough headlines to feel like we’re all harbouring the same fu
ck-it-here’s-death mentality while browsing Onion articles for the solace of another sad person.
And god, “Valentine’s Day” is perfect. It’s heartbreaking to hear a jam that’s just dying out all the way. And that’s how this album feels; unmasked, Bowie soaks up his past and uses the bits of him to forge his own modern era, but being out in the open means he has to face the hole in the middle of everything. On “I’d Rather Be High,” even on this upbeat, relentless chant song, he switches the distractions for the event, learning to face that “high” will turn to “dead” in an instant. When Bowie said he’d never perform these songs live, he might have been saying more that they couldn’t exist in that place; there’s a sense that we couldn’t hear these songs in front of us, whether intimate or arena rock – they don’t have the temperament for either, careering along a path with the cruel end always in sight.
I’ve never wanted to see any Bowie song performed live, admittedly because the fantasies he created always existed in my head, and these ones exist in his. So I’ll swear him off some more, and we’ll forget this album ever existed anywhere but the vacuum in which we heard it. So The Next Day
can be that album, the one that’s hidden and dug under even as the legend plays his most obtrusive music in, well, a decade. But the guy behind it, the one with his hands over his face, sick of death and the intentions behind it, and all its plodding inevitability? He’s still David Bowie, and it’s never been easier to read his sorry little hand.