Out of the blue, David Bowie has delivered another classic, which looks to the future while making liberal references to his Berlin period heyday
David Bowie: The Next Day
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The prospect of a new David Bowie album would have been sweet under any circumstances but to emerge without warning from a period of complete radio silence – which had been filled in his absence with rumours that Bowie had bowed out and was so grievously ill that The Flaming Lips had cause to speculate in song Is David Bowie Dying? – is quite, quite audacious. Now Wayne Coyne and all the rest of us have the answer straight from the source. “Here I am, not quite dying,” Bowie proclaims defiantly on the muscular title track of The Next Day.
Although it has been ten years since he last released an album, The Next Day seamlessly resumes that roll he began with Heathen and Reality, two great Bowie albums which appeared at a point when everyone thought there may never be another great Bowie album.
His producer Tony Visconti never lost the faith, nor entertained conjecture that Bowie had retired, stating in his 2007 autobiography that he felt Bowie was working towards another album and if he got the call, he would be there in a heartbeat. Now it transpires that wasn’t wishful thinking – he got the e-mail in November 2010 and the pair recommenced working together as they have always done, demoing ideas, then recording the backing tracks with a select band of trusted musicians (who all signed non-disclosure agreements), before retiring to work in isolation on lyrics and vocals.
Quite apart from the secrecy which shrouded this album’s very existence, Bowie has been careful with the tantalising drip feed of information. Now that we have the big reveal, available for all to hear for free on iTunes prior to its release next week, it is apparent that the elegant languor and melancholy tone of the gorgeous comeback single Where Are We Now? is no representation of the rest of the album, which mostly jumps off the blocks with vigour and vitality.
The album title looks to the future while its cover image, a doctored rendering of the iconic Heroes sleeve, references the past while blanking it out with a brand new font called Doctrine, which was designed especially for the occasion. Clever, if not terribly aesthetically pleasing.
Bowie’s legions of fans will have fun unpicking the many nods to his own music and legend and the wider cultural references with which this album is liberally laced, such as the mentions of his old Berlin hangouts in Where Are We Now?, the debt You Feel So Lonely You Could Die owes to Five Years and the namechecks for Joan Baez, Brigitte Bardot and the blues song Tobacco Road, as well as the wholly unexpected appropriation of the melody from The Shadows’ Apache on How Does The Grass Grow?
Sonically, much of The Next Day is a twisted treat in the vein of Lodger and Scary Monsters. Dirty Boys is a song from the red light district, with its illicit imagery and sleazy sax on the prowl. Love Is Lost issues a dire you-can-run-but-you-can’t-hide warning over foreboding, discordant organ, an ominous backing chorus of Bowies and distant squalls of guitar.
The high-school massacre of Valentine’s Day is arguably more unsettling because it is unveiled using bright, tuneful guitar work and doo-wop backing vocals. Likewise, I’d Rather Be High conveys its soldier’s lament of “I’d rather be dead or out of my head than training these guns on those men in the sand” with one of the album’s strongest, most accessible tunes.
Steve Elson’s snake-hipped sax takes another starring role on the strident soul funk number Boss Of Me, which is what passes for a love song in Bowieland, while the blithe art rockabilly of Dancing Out In Space is another thoroughly infectious Bowie dancing song.
He also returns to the subject of fame on current single The Stars (Are Out Tonight) in which celebrities literally hail from the stars. These extraterrestrial colonists are still beings of wonder but with a more sinister purpose than the awesome alien encounter of Starman. Elsewhere, on the rocky (You Will) Set The World On Fire, a star is spotted in early 1960s Greenwich Village, with Bowie taking the role of silver-tongued impresario.
The musical scope of the album can be heard in the contrasting styles of If You Can See Me, an invigorating oddity which kicks off with Gail Ann Dorsey’s soaring vocal and delivers an urgent rush – or should that be Rush? – with its proggy time signatures, and the introspective vulnerability of closing number Heat with its sonorous bass and Bowie’s Scott Walkeresque baritone delivery.
This may just be the winning frisson that Bowie and Visconti happen to create when they hit a studio but they certainly know which buttons to push in order to trigger that intrinsic Bowie bliss and speak to the fans in familiar yet inventive tones.