David Bowie’s “The Next Day”
Bowie's latest may be predictable, but the king of reinvention has put together a solid album nonetheless, with frequent callbacks to his prior work.
Whether you’re Jesus Christ or Michael Jordan, a comeback is a hard enough thing to do once. Twice? Forget about it.
But what if you’re David Bowie? The Next Day is Bowie’s first record in 10 years, the longest break of his career – yet Bowie’s career is one marked by comebacks.
In 1967, following a forgettable first album and slew of rejections from his label, a disillusioned, then 20-year-old Bowie announced his first retirement, declaring his intent to become a Buddhist and embark upon a career in dance. Two exploratory years later, he reemerged with “Space Oddity,” which broke the UK Top Five and was followed soon by The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, both obvious classics that anticipated Bowie’s breakout year: 1972. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust catapulted him to international superstardom, at the height of which, he to the surprise of everyone, retired again.
Soon after, Bowie fired most of his band, moved to America, and picked up where he left off, recording Diamond Dogs and Young Americans. In the process, he developed a cocaine habit, got divorced, moved to Switzerland, nurtured that cocaine habit, then finally went to Berlin and got sober. Bowie remained remarkably active throughout the next two decades, releasing an album every couple years and producing numerous hits: “Ashes to Ashes,” “Under Pressure,” the infamous collaboration with Queen, and 1983’s classic “Let’s Dance.” Even in the ’90s and early 2000s, when other rockers his age were cashing in on their back catalogues, Bowie produced five albums of new material, toured the world with Nine Inch Nails, and did commercials with Snoop Dog.
But all this ended abruptly in 2004, when, after suffering a heart attack backstage in Berlin, Bowie all but dropped off the face of the earth, surfacing only for a few collaborations (notably with Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio), but by and large shunning the spotlight, taking time to recover and raise his young daughter.
Like Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, the question with Bowie seems to be not when he will stop but if. The Next Day is David Bowie’s 27th studio album, a point that is definitely not lost on him. The record is filled with self-conscious references to it, most immediately on the lead, title track’s chorus: “Here I am, not quite dying / my body left to rot in a hollow tree.”
Themes of recurrence and aging appear elsewhere in The Next Day. The record’s first single, the sober “Where Are We Now” is pure nostalgia, featuring a subdued Bowie “walking the dead” throughout various sections of Berlin, the city where he withdrew from his cocaine addiction and recorded the Berlin Trilogy (1977’s Low and Heroes, 1978’s Lodger) with Brian Eno over 30 years ago.
But Bowie isn’t totally confined to himself. The Next Day showcases a great deal of the macabre, third-person fun Bowie’s always had. There’s suicidal twenty-two year old girls (“Love is Lost”), child assassins (“Valentine’s Day”), and a great deal of nihilistic, cross-dressing malevolence (“If You Can See Me”). While Bowie may be in the twilight of his career, he certainly hasn’t lost his capacity to shock lyrically.
I wish the same were true of the music. Sonically, the Next Day is all over the place, a glossy retrospective of everything Bowie’s dabbled with in the past – a fact made more obvious by his reunion with longtime producer Tony Visconti. Listening through The Next Day, you’ll hear the guitar-rock and saxophones of Ziggy (“Boss of Me”), the ambiance of The Berlin Trilogy (“Heat”), and the coked-out soulfulness of Young Americans (“(You Will) Set the World on Fire”), all without the glory of those originals. The Next Day’s gloss ultimately renders it devoid of the spontaneity that made Bowie great.
But if anyone’s earned the right to predictable, solid records, it’s Bowie, a man who’s embodied spontaneity his entire life. While The Next Day’s hilarious cover art (the cover of Heroes with Bowie’s face cropped out) has provided a sliver of the controversy and speculation of a usual Bowie reinvention, this iteration doesn’t seem to hint at any serious return, and Visconti has stated in interviews that Bowie currently intends to work strictly within the confines of his studio for the rest of his career.
For a figure as enigmatic as Bowie, this is an appropriate move. After all, what more does he have to prove? Sure, Bowie’s never had a No.1 record in the U.S., but after a week with next to no promotion, The Next Day already topped the charts in the U.K. and finished a close second in the States, just behind Bon Jovi.
If you were David Bowie, would you change what you were doing? For Bon Jovi?