Review Summary: Bowie's presented us a vibrant work incredibly in step with the times, both for the elders raging against the dying of the light and the youth raging against the machine.
"I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality."
James Joyce was referring to his monolithic Ulysses, rendered nearly incomprehensible in places by obscure historical references and esoteric plays on language. The Next Day is no Ulysses in either inscrutability or stature - indeed, it most likely will not find itself even in the upper echelons of Bowie's own canon - but since lead single "Where Are We Now?" dropped unannounced in early January, the album has conjured more speculation, interpretation, and press in general than any other release in the decade since Bowie's last outing. The weight of expectation, borne of the extensive period of inactivity and Bowie's own iconic shadow, makes assessing The Next Day a daunting task. Bowie has attained a cozy near-infallibility these days as the threads of his influence are woven into all corners of the current pop/rock tapestry, paving the way for potential overvaluation.
There's a proverbial onion's worth of meaning and symbolism within Bowie's words here, but he's remained staid as the stone-faced expression he wears in the album sleeve. There's fear, warning, doubt, revenge, and paranoia at play; to sum it up, it's a glimpse of what Bowie might envision as the apocalypse - perhaps "the next day" after his fabled "five years" - and it ain't pretty. Violence and debauchery often reign supreme - a fanatical mob clamors for his head in the Passion parallel title track; The celebrity-fan paradigm is turned on its head, akin to Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi," in "The Stars are Out;" future prosperity is attained only through bloodshed in "How Does The Grass Grow?" However, Bowie seems to have accepted this fate, even welcoming it for his enemies as he casts his gaze time and again to the heavens - stars are a commonly recurring image - presumably at the promise of escape from this world.
Musically, the most successful tracks of The Next Day largely use the post-punk stylings of Bowie's last three decades as a blueprint, with dashes of his 70's endeavors. That "Where Are We Now?" was a red herring as indication of the album's sound, alluded to by producer Tony Visconti in the wake of the song's release, couldn't be more evident after the ambush of the opening title track. Bowie apes Johnny Rotten histrionics as he frantically scratches toward the chorus. He employs a flat croon over seedy baritone sax and raw nerve guitar flourishes - not unlike Iggy Pop's early Bowie-helmed solo outings - on "Dirty Boys," a suitable soundtrack perhaps to A Clockwork Orange's Alex and his Droogs. On the power-pop revenge tale, "Valentine's Day," Bowie reverts to the nasal singing of his early heyday, though his vocal stabs at song's end are as murderous as its protagonist. A squealing of the breaks, on "Where Are We Now?" for what might be the first time in his career, Bowie's voice is fragile, bordering on sorrowful, very much belying the nature of the album surrounding it, both sonically and thematically as there are embers of hope in his reassurance "as long as there's me...as long as there's you."
The comparatively flabbier, though still completely enjoyable, second half of the album paradoxically lightens the tone by steering away Armageddon, but bogs down the album's cohesion with a fairly anachronistic and by-the-numbers 80's sound. The guitar/sax combo returns on "Boss Of Me," but it's more slick and muscular, losing its seediness and grime. "Dancing Out In Space"s celestial swing is complete cotton candy compared to the rocky road of earlier tracks. Fortunately, the hooks throughout this soft patch are strong enough to pull the listener through to the "Rock & Roll Suicide" theatrics of "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die." The shadows of the album's darker first half ooze back in; while Ziggy had offered the assurance that "you're not alone," Bowie now prognosticates and bemuses his antagonist's loneliness. The Next Day could have easily and satisfactorily ended there, but Bowie performs an about face nearly as jarring as Heroes' "The Secret Life of Arabia"s technicolor appearing after "Neukoln"s solitary sax dive into the abyss. Closer "Heat" is Mr. Hyde to "Where Are We Now?"s Dr. Jeykll; the sparest song in the lot, Bowie's quaver is now foreboding as he admits, "I don't know who I am."
In the ten years since his last dispatch, Bowie has evidently stewed in the reality that he is ever closer to confronting mortality, typically a crossroads of conscience that an artist as perpetually trendy as he has difficulty coming to terms with. Bowie sings of "the moment you know you know" on "Where Are We Now?" - on The Next Day, we're offered the fruits of the labor of Bowie's said moment. Fortunately, he's presented us a vibrant work incredibly in step with the times, both for the elders raging against the dying of the light and the youth raging against the machine.