Let’s just get this out of the way: The Next Day does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with such classics as Low, Heroes, and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. David Bowie’s first album in ten years is classicist in nature, drawing from his most famous eras while ruminating on old age and fading glory. Make no mistake: this is a great record, but let’s not put the cart before the horse. The aforementioned records had decades to seep into pop culture lore, adding to the mystique that is Bowie. It isn’t fair to them or The Next Day to use hyperbole and instantly put this record on that vaulted pedestal.
That said, Bowie‘s The Next Day is an excellent, and at times brilliant, return for the aging rocker. Teaming with producer Tony Visconti, Bowie has created an intoxicating record that sometimes feels like the sound of a young man, while at other times, invokes the thoughts of an elderly man who knows the end is near. Rumors of poor health have dogged Bowie since his last record Reality, with his extended withdrawal from the public eye furthering the whispers of his coming demise. The surprise first single off of The Next Day, “Where Are We Now,” gave listeners the sense that the coming record would be a slow dirge, filled with ruminations on a glorious life that is no longer in the spotlight. Indeed, the cover of The Next Day features a nod to Heroes, making it seem as if the record will not only be a look forward towards the final days of his life, but a look back at Bowie’s glory days through the lens of slower numbers like “Where Are We Now?”
That idea couldn’t be farther from the truth. Opener “The Next Day” takes the “slower Bowie” theory and throws it out the window. This is Bowie reaching back into his Berlin period and crafting a funky tune that hits the ground running. “We can’t get enough of that doomsday song,” says Bowie, his voice low in the mix until he lets loose with the chorus, “Here I am/Not quite dying/My body left to rot in a hollow tree.” It’s a bold lyric, letting the audience know up front the state of Bowie in 2013.
It’s apparent from the opener to the finale, “Heat“, that Bowie’s voice, while not young by any means, can still hit the notes when needed. He slinks and paws in “Dirty Boys,” puts on his rocker shoes in “If You Can See Me” and even nods back to his ’60s and ’80s eras in the “Modern Love“-meets-”Space Oddity” ditty, “Dancing Out in Space.” The gospel tinged “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” is another showstopper, a number that would probably kill in a live setting. There’s even the beautiful psych-pop of “Valentine’s Day,” one of the best songs on the album and a true showcase of Bowie’s vocal abilities. For a man who was supposed to be on his last legs, he sounds rejuvenated and inspired. If this is the end of the line for the man, what a way to go out.
Bowie has always been a master of owning his image, and The Next Day is no different. He’s older, perhaps closer to death than he wants to be, but even while his body fails him, Bowie still has complete control over how he wants to be perceived. From the cover that consciously recalls the vaunted “Berlin Era” to the beautiful closer, “Heat,” it’s obvious that Bowie wanted to make a statement, not just on his persona, but his private life as well. “I don’t know who I am” says Bowie as the album draws to a close, sounding maudlin and alone amongst a sea of ambient textures and quiet strings. It’s a fitting, yet sad statement for a man who has changed personas throughout his career like most people change socks. But, is it a reflection of his career or his life as his health fades?
If this is the end of Bowie the recording artist, then it’s a fine farewell to one of the great musicians of our time. But, if this is the beginning of a new phase for Bowie, we may be in for a victory lap that many did not see coming. Either way, try not to buy into hyperbole on The Next Day quite yet. We’ve been thirsty for a new Bowie album for so long, it’s easy to put something this good on that “all-time greats” pedestal. Instead, enjoy The Next Day on its own merits and dig the fact that we can even talk about not just a new David Bowie album, but a great one at that. In a decade or two we can talk about where this record stands in his discography. Until then, just enjoy the ride.