by Dan Smith
Imagine if the world had indeed capitulated and died in December 2012 as the doomsayers and general n’er-do-wells had predicted. Had it occurred, and all substantial life forms had ceased to exist on planet Earth, all that would have remained is a philosophical tune descending on the whistling wind from outer space.
And if you had to associate one artist with a fitting soundtrack to Armageddon, it would probably be David Bowie. Especially with his latest work, which for most part acts like an eclectic ‘Spiders from Mars’ revisited. “They can’t get enough of that doomsday song”, a line from the second verse of the title song on the new ‘The Next Day’ album, sets the cogs of the subconscious into overdrive, in true Bowie fashion.
The song itself acts as a sledgehammer shot to the primary question before listening to the album: Has he still got what it takes? The answer is an affirmative yes. The combination in evidence with the opener is of a modern day, rudimentary drum-beat accompanying a harrowing lyrical journey with the returning superstar, which builds into a nightmarish crescendo worthy of his earlier ‘Scary Monsters’ work.
This first track, more than any other on the album, genuinely unsettles with its building synth overtones and incessantly haunting lyrics (“Here I am, not quite dying/My body left to rot in a hollow tree”). You genuinely feel a pang of fidgety awkwardness for wanting to sing along to such a chorus.
The seedy, brothel-house blues track ‘Dirty Boys’ follows next, a jerkier jazz take on the same venomous lyrics. By the time the third track arrives, the second of the teaser singles released in February, ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ makes it clear that the album is a stream of consciousness for Bowie to reflect on the autumn years of his life and the vivid recreation of personal experiences, such as his Berlin years, that led to this seminally artistic album. This track admittedly falls slightly into anonymity when put against the rest, which make its composition sound uncannily like a flunky ‘70s disco tune.
‘Where are We Now?’, the first single release from the album, stands up well as the singer’s voice appears cracked and quiveringly aged as he recalls the Berlin era of the 1980s. Despite its symbolic nature and eulogistic charm, it can feel like an A-Z of places Bowie visited in Germany at times.
The bleak waltz ‘Valentine’s Day’ features melodic guitar riffs which are among the instrumental highlights, while the pacy ‘If You Can See Me’ creates the ambience of a frenetic, rock and roll suicide.
In fact, that is the underlying theme of the album; self reflective glances, complete with stories of snipers wishing for death, and angry verses such as “I stumble to the graveyard and I lay down by my parents”. It’s chilling stuff.
‘Boss of Me’ is slightly incongruous in its hard rock execution, sounding more like a ratty teenager, and it lacks the killer punch which is prevalent among other tracks. Likewise, the innocent, more upbeat ‘Dancing Out of Space’ tips its hat to the ‘Spiders From Mars’ period, but seems like merely a tribute to the previous Bowie incarnation.
‘How Does the Grass Grow?’ is arguably the track in which the ageing Bowie’s voice defies old father time most effectively, evoking reminiscences of the androgynous Ziggy Stardust persona taunting the camera.
Switching the pace again is the penultimate ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’, another powerfully morbid work of rock and roll suicide, which is a stand out track of the album, assuming you’re into that sort of thing. ‘Heat’ is a similarly solemn sign off, which is among the most morbid closing tracks any artist has ever conjured. It’s like Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ crossed with a dying Radiohead number.
Many are labelling ‘The Next Day’ among Bowie’s finest, up there with ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Hunky Dory’. National Brit Rock are not making such a claim, as it’s impossible to know if the album will possess the same iron-clad longevity and relevance of those masterpieces.
But for the here and now, in 2013, it’s a sure-fire gem of art-rock, with some of Bowie’s most reflective work on display. It is vastly eclectic, but is so much so that it can often sound erratic in the order of the tracks. An updated, new age presentation of diverse tunes is the backdrop for searing lyricism from the king of abstract culture, setting the bar extremely high for any artist to this year top.
An absence of a decade has done nothing to harm the genius of the 66-year old, whose power to infiltrate the sub-conscious has been replicated once again. ‘The Next Day’ acts as an enigmatic interlude to our existence, before the next great reclusive silence which is sure to follow.
When all is done on the world and human life is but a wistful, lingering wheeze on the galaxy’s breath, there will still be Bowie. His timeless legacy will simply transcend life and death, and he’ll lay above the desolation and anarchy, sitting in a tin can, waiting for the next great comeback.
An intellectual appreciation of Bowie is required to fully indulge on the feast available here, which is something that may limit the accessibility and universal acclaim of the album, but if you ‘get it’, it’s a certifiable, operatic tour-de-force.
1. The Next Day
2. Dirty Boys
3. The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
4. Love Is Lost
5. Where Are We Now?
6. Valentine’s Day
7. If You Can See Me
8. I’d Rather Be High
9. Boss of Me
10. Dancing Out in Space
11. How Does the Grass Grow?
12. (You Will) Set the World on Fire
13. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die
Released: 08 March 2013
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