David Bowie’s new album The Next Day – his first for a decade – is a bold, beautiful and baffling electric bolt through its own mythos, says Neil McCormick.
It is an enormous pleasure to report that the new David Bowie album is an absolute wonder: urgent, sharp-edged, bold, beautiful and baffling, an intellectually stimulating, emotionally charged, musically jagged, electric bolt through his own mythos and the mixed-up, celebrity-obsessed, war-torn world of the 21st century.
Musically, it is stripped and to the point, painted in the primal colours of rock: hard drums, fluid bass, fizzing guitars, shaded by splashes of keyboard and dirty rasps of horns. The 14 songs are short and spiky, often contrasting that kind of patent Bowie one-note declarative drawl with sweet bursts of melodic escape that hit you like a sugar rush. Bowie’s return from a decade’s absence feels very present, although full of sneaky backward glances.
Hints, references and echoes of the past abound. Touches of jangling Sixties pop lift the flying melody of I’d Rather Be High, the poised soul of the Thin White Duke haunts the sax strut of Dirty Boys and Boss of Me, and epic Eighties Goth rears its imperious head amid the dramatic descending chords of Love Is Lost.
You might detect the wonky sound-clashes of Berlin-era Bowie in the dissonant chords of Dancing Out In Space, albeit crossed with the dynamic grooves of Let’s Dance, opening out to the drum’n’bass jazz fusion of Earthling on If You Can See Me.
There’s a surprising blast of the heavy rocking excess of Tin Machine on the power-chord stomp of (You Will Set) The World On Fire and even a welcome dash of Ziggy Stardust about the glam-rocking Valentine’s Day, which spirals off towards the heavens with Earl Slick’s guitar solo pursuing the elusive spirit of the late Mick Ronson.
Yet The Next Day never feels like a museum piece, deftly filtering signature references through a lean, snappy New York rock distortion that is something quite new for Bowie. Discounting the failed experiment of Tin Machine, this is his rockiest album since the days of Aladdin Sane.
The Next Day was produced secretly over two years with long-serving collaborator Tony Visconti and a small unit of session players familiar from late-period Bowie, including bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, drummer Zachary Alford and Irish ambient guitarist Gerry Leonard, with Bowie on keyboards.
The title track opens with a snare slam and see-saw guitar riff appropriated from Fashion but ramped up with a Sonic Youth attack. Imagistic lyrics conjure a fallen idol betrayed and punished by “the gormless and baying crowd” who “can’t get enough of that doomsday song”. “Here I am, not quite dying,” chants Bowie, while his band punch and howl.
Here he is, indeed. With its dense, oblique imagery, “soggy paper bodies” and “purple-headed priest”, it could (as producer Visconti has suggested) be about some obscure medieval tyrant, but it could equally be a comment on the fickleness and dangers of the fame from which Bowie retreated. “At first they give you everything that you want,” Bowie snaps, “then they take back everything that you need.”
Stars are a repeated, ambiguous motif, sometimes appearing as celestial bodies, sometimes in the back of stretch limos with tinted windows.
“Brigitte, Jack, Kate and Brad” have a playful cameo on The Stars (Are Out Tonight), in which Bowie recasts celebrities as tragic minor gods of a secular age, “sexless and unaroused”. With his cut-and-paste methodology, Bowie is never easy to interpret, but his new album bubbles and fizzes with lyrical energy, panning out from intensely personal close-ups to horrified widescreen shots of a chaotic world.
On the extraordinary How Does The Grass Grow he contemplates ethnic genocide with a nightmarish despair made all the more disorienting by the off-kilter exuberance of a “la la la” chorus appropriated from The Shadows’ Apache.
The album’s epic climax, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, is fantastic, a lush companion piece to Ziggy’s Rock’n’roll Suicide that drips vitriol in place of compassion (“Oblivion shall own you / Death alone shall love you”), the warmth of the setting contrasting with the cold rage of the sentiment.
It feels highly personal but lends itself to political interpretation, an attack on shadowy figures who engineer conflict, the power behind the power. But why does Bowie shift gear at the end to ride out on the stately, resonant drum pattern of Ziggy’s Five Years?
What can it all mean? Who knows? I’m still scratching my head over an album cover that looks as if he just stuck a Post-it note on Heroes. You don’t come to Bowie for easy answers, and The Next Day is both immediately rewarding and mystifyingly opaque. It closes on the ominous, despairing, jazzily introspective Heat, with the tremulous refrain “And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am.”
Bowie provides his own tantalising answer to the ultimate question of his chameleonic identity by signing off from the most compelling comeback in rock history with “I am a seer… but I am a liar.”
Welcome back, David.
The Next Day is released on Sony on March 11