The Next Day
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
You’d think we’d all know by now that David Bowie is going to stay one step ahead of the rest of us, and yet he still continues to confound and startle us with his maneuvers. 2013 has been a particularly jaw-dropping year in the Bowie calendar. First, he dropped a beautiful single called “Where Are We Now?” without any warning. Next, he announced that a new album was forthcoming, although nobody knew he had even been recording and most of the world assumed he had retired in the interim since his last album, Reality, was released in 2003.
Based on the contemplative, languid nature of “Where Are We Now?” there was also an inclination to believe that the new album would be a measured assessment of time past from an elder statesman. The Next Day destroys those assumptions a few bars into the opening title track, as Bowie rides on top of a strutting rock groove and chants out, “Here I am, not quite died/My body left to rot in a hollow tree.” The defiant tone of his voice, which has lost none of its strange power, makes it clear that no tree could possibly hold this cat.
One of the best things about The Next Day is that it’s impossible to pin down any previous Bowie era which might have served as a precedent. The closest might be the jagged rock of 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps,) but even that comparison doesn’t hold water most of the time. It might work for the sneering rock vibe of “Valentine’s Day,” but it’s not apt at all for the sax-fueled, stop-and-start groove of “Dirty Boys,” which sounds like Tom Waits at his most daring.
The first half of the album is filled with vibrant tracks, including the adrenalized whoosh of “The Stars (Are Out Tonight,)” in which Bowie imagines the stars having knowledge and emotions and portrays them as a mix of benevolence and menace as they regard the humans below them. Also fine is the taut “Love Is Lost,” a portrait of a young, decadent girl whose possessions and beauty can’t hide what’s inside: “Your fear is as old as the world.”
The Next Day does fall prey to the common CD-era mistake that insists an album should be packed to the gills with a lot of tracks instead of narrowed down to the very best. As a result, there is a stretch of five songs in the middle of the album that try a little bit of everything but only end up sounding claustrophobic and humorless.
Things pick back up again at the end, and Bowie even gives the faithful a throwback with the florid ballad “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” which is pitched somewhere between “All The Young Dudes” and Rocky Horror. In “Heat,” the atmospheric closing track, he sings “And I tell myself/I don’t know who I am.” If he doesn’t know it, than we never will, but that’s OK. The bottom line is that The Next Day proves that Bowie, whoever he might be, is back, invigorating his listeners even as he stupefies them.