For some, the unexpected release earlier this year of downbeat single “Where Are We Now?” was a somewhat mixed experience – elation at Bowie’s return and willingness to share his 66th birthday with the world, but concern that it was also perhaps a glimpse (in the song’s video – literally just a glimpse) of yet another rock icon becoming slower and older before our eyes. Coupled with its “Wait, that’s not a joke?” album cover, which looked like ISO/Columbia Records making use of perfectly serviceable old stock, it’s understandable that even die-hard fans had some trepidation going in.
However, my personal fears of an entire album of possibly encountering an older man’s languorous narratives about public transportation experiences was allayed by the very first sound, a sharp bite of drumbeat immediately followed by urgent squawking guitars that harkened back to Scary Monsters-era Bowie. As the tracks played on, it became clear that this was no sleepy retirement album for our ever-changing Bowie, but rather, quite a solid mix of songs, styles and layers that leans upon his most fertile decade (we’ll call it 1971 to 1980) without depending on it. I’ll gamble this is, at least in part, the result of the involvement of Bowie’s former “main man” Tony Visconti, whose co-production seems to help the artist recapture some of his youth without feeling like he’s going back to the well one too many times.
Highlights include the driving title track, with Bowie showing he has some growl still left in him, chanting somewhat defiantly “here I am / not quite dying /my body left to rot in a hollow tree.” Immediately following is the crisply rhythmic and immediately likeable “Dirty Boys,” which veers a bit darker and makes you wonder how many Tom Waits albums our Thin White Duke might own. “I’d Rather Be High” sticks melodically and also manages to be neutrally anti-war, noting that young soldiers would probably prefer to be using substances or other people for pleasure than sweating buckets out in a desert. Other notables include the aggressive “How Does the Grass Grow?” and an almost Station to Station-esque grand effort, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” which has a lovely little Easter egg at the end for fans of Ziggy’s “Five Years.”
The interesting thing about this album is that it feels like an album – songs balance against each other and the ebb and flow make sense, so that when the aforementioned “Where Are We Now?” finally makes an appearance as the fifth track, the change in pace is welcomed, and the “As long as there’s me / As long as there’s you” feels more sincere than sentimental. Though for those who thought the hastily revised Heroes album covers indicated a return to Berlinian enformen, sadly, you may be a bit ein klein enttauscht (disappointed), as few keyboards and nary an Eno grace the tracks.
Overall, Bowie seems to have embraced his current state of affairs with little regret nor fear of embarrassment. The same age as many fans’ parents, though leaner, impeccably coiffed and, of course, much more otherworldly, he no longer needs borrowed DnB stylings, industrial echoes or indie flavors-of-the-month to dress up his songs for new audiences. He just is, and that’s more than enough for this go-round.
The easy joke to make is that this is Bowie’s best effort in the past ten years, given that the last time he put out anything new – not counting his ditty on Extras about Ricky Gervais’s pug-nosed face – was 2003’s Reality. But the truth of the matter is that you should double that – it’s really his best in two decades. If you have a Bowie album at all in your collection, you should get The Next Day to keep it company. It belongs there.