David Bowie’s new CD “The Next Day” is a gut wrenching, beautiful masterpiece. Recorded in secret over the past two years with producer Tony Visconti, the effort could have gone in just a few directions. 2003’s “Reality” was for the most part a strong release, 2002’s “Heathen” was excellent, while 1999’s “Hours” was a mostly forgettable affair. Bowie fans around the world were surprised that a new album was forthcoming at all, so it’s safe to say we would have been happy with almost anything, including a mixed bag.
However, I think Mr. Bowie has managed to remind us that art is about digging deep into the human psyche and bring out something truly beautiful. “The Next Day” is whole in it’s expression of the human experience. It’s at once immensely sad, a freight train aimed at the heart of sorrow, and incredibly joyful, the kind of deep joy that only comes from thoroughly understanding sorrow and suffering. Next to 1996’s departure album “Outside”, it’s the darkest release of his career, and it’s more balanced than “Outside” was. It could very well be the the best album of Bowie’s career.
1. The Next Day
David starts off with a post-punk dance track showing off the perfect mix of dissonant guitars and hard-hitting rhythm. Vocally, it’s all attitude, as Bowie spits venom with the lines “Here I am/Not quite dying/My body left to rot in a dying tree”. There are many cases on the album like this that find Bowie freeing him of himself. He’s being clear with no sugarcoating, and he’s not holding on to anything.
2. Dirty Boys
With an intro groove that reminded me a bit of “Raised Right Men” by Tom Waits, I realized the similarities in quality between these two masterpieces; “The Next Day” and “Bad As Me”. “Dirty Boys” starts off with a crawling beat and a back-and-forth exchange between menacing guitars and baritone saxophone. It plays to the part of us that rejects what’s good for us…the part that goes out and indulges headstrong in the worst the city has to offer.
3. The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
Once again, dissonance is a factor here, and you can here the influence the Pixies had on Bowie with the perfectly chosen guitar lines. A potent commentary on our current obsession with stardom, and accompanied with a stunning video, this is an absorbing listen. The strings push it over the top. Everything tasteful and potent.
4. Love Is Lost
“Your country’s new…and your maid is new…and your accent, too, but your fear is as old as the world”. That gives you an idea of the tone on “Love Is Lost”, which is hands down one of the most powerful songs on this release. Hello church organ and dark, dark, electro blues. Each element elevates the others. The vocals sound desperate. This is a call to arms, or a call to come to terms.
5. Where Are We Now?
A brilliant choice for the first single, who knew how much it would stand alone as a rare quiet moment on a menacing rock release? Vulnerable and broken, this is the tale of one who’s defenses are completely down. That’s what gives the piece it’s energy of truth.
6. Valentine’s Day
A throwback to 60’s and 70’s Bowie, this is a lush track filled with warm chords and beautiful backup harmonies, although the story is quite dark, lyrically describing an ousted loner.
7. If You Can See Me
The song seems to burst out of nowhere with a frantic pace. The beat lurches forward and reminds the listener of “Hallo Spaceboy”, or perhaps the “Earthling” album, although it’s strange and more experimental. Progressive and exciting. Electronic, industrial, rock, pop, gothic, progressive rock…it’s a cohesive fusion of them all. Frantic and panicked is the vocal delivery, but at the same time joyful and celebratory.
8. I’d Rather Be High
Another dark lyrical take on a soldier doubting his path in life, with the chorus lyrics “I’d rather be flying, I’d rather be dead, than out of my head and training these guns on those men in the sand.” The chorus itself is brilliant, and the melody of the song takes on a melodic George Harrison psychedelic influence. Who knew “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” could be so powerful?
9. Boss Of Me
Bowie revisits the best of his 80’s persona with this very catchy track that could very well be another single.
10. Dancing Out In Space
The simple love for dancing/movement comes out and pushes through the sadness and confusion. A song to lay your cares aside to, proven by the line “no one here can see you”.
11. How Does The Grass Grow?
Ya ya ya ya. Strange and addictive, this is one of the most hooky tracks on the album, with typically morbid lyrics set over a pure pop rock backdrop.
12. (You Will) Set The World On Fire
The 70’s are back again. This track opens with something that could fit in well with “The Man Who Sold The World”, and it’s a bona fide hit. Anyone doubting Bowie’s modern rock credentials should be pointed to this well-crafted offering. The chorus weaves it’s magic with repetition, making for a purely arena rock experience. Amazing!
13. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die
The sense of melancholy comes back, with another quiet and reflective track, only similar to “Where Are We Now?” in mood. The doo wop style and church hall backup vocals make for a powerful atmosphere. The lyrics speak for themselves, telling the story of a suicidal person who endlessly projects their depression to the world.
Enter the Scott Walker influence. Possibly the most “Outside” sounding song on the album, “Heat” is hypnotic and droning, with the same chords continuing on throughout the piece. Bowie says goodbye to the personality, to the human predicament, in this song of mourning and nonsensical exploration. Beautiful and eye-opening, ending with the odd line “My father ran the prison”.