Review Summary: There's a reason why Bowie hides his face in the cover
In a career carved out of reinvention across more than four decades, David Bowie’s new album The Next Day represents the next act. But never before has Bowie wanted to put so much emphasis on his ability to change. This much is apparent from the much-debated album cover, featuring an anything but subtle blotting out of the cover of Bowie’s “Heroes” with an unadorned white square. Still, Bowie’s attempts to rid himself of the baggage of his past have failed spectacularly: most, if not all, of the reviews on the album focus almost more on its place in Bowie’s legacy than the contents of the album itself. So to be fair to Bowie, what’s the music like?
Much like its cover, The Next Day is primarily not a subtle album. This is not to mean that it doesn’t have its finer details, but at its core it is a rock album. There isn’t any overarching concept or obvious, radical musical experimentation on display here. The Next Day is simply about the music, about the songs. And it works.
The album is full of tracks different enough to make it varied but still remain cohesive. There is much to choose from here: Love Is Lost is driven by a merciless synth-line. Dirty Boys and Boss of Me flirt with saxophones, while (You Will) Set The World On Fire is a straightforward guitar attack. There’s the piano ballad Where Are We Now?, and the grandiosely orchestrated penultimate track You Feel So Lonely You Could Die. Lyrically the album revolves largely around death, from track names to lyrics such as “My body left to rot in a hollow tree” on the title track. The album isn’t without its lighter moments, such as the sci-fi fantasy of Dancing Out in Space or the sarcasm of I’d Rather Be High. The latter track, seemingly a comment on the recent unrest of the Arab world, contemplates with dry humour: “I’d rather be high/I’d rather be flying/ ... than training these guns on the men in the sand”.
Highlights from the album are the single The Stars (Are Out Tonight), Valentine’s Day, and the album closer Heat. The Stars is a lush rocker, with a distortion-heavy lead guitar that cuts through the nocturnal background of synth and strings. Valentine’s Day is the most emotionally accessible song on the album with simple but emotive guitar work. Heat is a slow and atmospheric closer to the album, with nigh-on apocalyptic drums and a gradual build up of buzzing guitars, impressionistic synthesisers and melodic strings. There is no obvious climax, but instead the soundscape slowly fades away. The listener is left only with Bowie’s cryptic refrain “My father ran the prison.”
While the album doesn’t have enough missteps to feature a simply bad song, there are dubious moments. I’d Rather Be High’s verses are relatively dull compared to the chorus of the riff that the song is built around. Some of the background vocals in How Does the Grass Grow? and Dancing Out in Space tread the line between appropriately whimsy and flat-out silly, not always remaining on the right side of the line. However the worst moment on the album is in the first single: the strings and piano which introduce the chorus of Where Are We Now. The incredibly uninspired and cringe-worthy strings stop the song from being one of the highlights of the album.
So, returning to the original question, what is the music like? It’s varied, enjoyable and plays to Bowie’s strengths. It’s not an album that re-imagines Bowie or his music, despite the declaration of the album cover. But maybe that mysterious cover isn’t about innovation or history. Perhaps it’s an attempt to blot out the artist and emphasise the album itself. And this is certainly the story on The Next Day. It’s a great album not because it’s by David Bowie, but because of the music that’s in it.