Saturday, March 23, 2013

Album Review: David Bowie - The Next Day (2013)

If you read the UK music press – or rather, if you “believe” the UK music press – you’d be convinced that David Bowie’s new album The Next Day was something akin to a second coming. A few of the more hyperbolic sections of the media have gone so far as to label it “the greatest comeback in Rock history”.

What’s most fascinating about that, is that people still really care about David Bowie. That pop music’s perennial chameleon is still capable of generating a serious buzz, still up there as one of the big stories, and still provoking outrageous hyperbole. At 66 years of age, no less.

Effectively, that’s all that we’re celebrating here. It isn’t the greatest comeback in Rock history. I’d be hard pressed to tell you what is, but The Next Day just isn’t it.
For all that it is in fact a terrific album by 2013 standards so far, it isn’t even anything close to David Bowie’s very best work.

But as we know, Bowie’s “very best” is a pretty high benchmark. One he’s been struggling to achieve since the release of Scary Monsters back in 1980.

I really enjoyed the fine Heathen album from around a decade ago, but Bowie for me has always been the ultimate reference point for Seventies glam, androgynous chic, and a cutting edge icon for a certain generation. And the truth is you have to go back four decades to know Bowie in his prime.

Even seeing him live at his commercial peak in 1983 felt anti-climatic for me, in spite of the chart success he was enjoying at the time, his most creative years had almost certainly been and gone.
There’s been the odd flash of brilliance since, but after 2003’s Reality album and a major health scare a year or so later, Bowie’s been more or less playing a new role, that of quiet family man. Any new work would only be of curiosity value, and little more than a bonus for collectors.

To be fair, we’ve ended up with a quite a lot more than that – The Next Day proving to be a very welcome, if entirely unexpected, addition to the vast (and mixed) Bowie discography.

Rock God
The album’s main strength is the sheer amount of variety on offer – from unrepentant rockers (‘The Next Day’, ‘If You Can See Me’), to more straightforward pop (‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’), to intriguing introspective numbers (‘Where Are We Now’), and experimental slower ballads (the closer, ‘Heat’).

Bowie’s voice has generally held up well, and if age has added a certain vulnerability to it, there’s a sense that what he’s singing about is all the more believable simply because he’s lived it. There’s moments where we experience a softer, less imposing version of the man, and, gasp, times where Bowie seems almost happy to be human again.

Lyrical themes include war in the Middle East, religion, love, lust, the art of aging gracefully, and more generally questions about how we’re continually managing to fuck things up so irretrievably.  

Inevitably, the production is strong, and a major feature, just as you’d expect with long-time Bowie cohort Tony Visconti back at the controls.

Bowie’s standing as a Rock God can never be disputed and his influence across the last four decades is there for all to marvel at, no dispute, but in a few years time The Next Day won’t be recalled among his best half dozen or so albums, it just won’t.

It is however a wonderful belated footnote at the end of a long career, and the album very probably includes, alongside stuff from 2002’s Heathen, some of his best work in 30 years.

That’s more than enough, surely?

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