David Bowie’s new album, The Next Day, will be released one week from today. This is a decade after his previous studio album, Reality, and the first to be released after his heart attack in 2004. Many fans had concluded that Bowie had decided to retire gracefully, leaving us with one of the most creative musical legacies ever. But out of the blue comes The Next Day. I, along with a couple dozen other music writers, bloggers, or whatever we are, were summoned to Roundhead Studios by Sony Records to get an advance “first listen” to The Next Day.
I’ve been a fan of Bowie’s ever since I first heard him while I was in London in 1972. I saw him (as Ziggy) perform Star Man on Top Of The Pops and I was hooked. So being a long –time fan, it’s normal to want this new Bowie album to be as wonderful as past classics like Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust, Heroes or Let’s Dance. But this being Bowie, we also don’t want him to repeat himself, to become a nostalgia act, we expect him to break new ground, or at least sound contemporary. The one thing we dread is that the album is merely average.
Well, folks. I can assure you that The Next Day is not a trip down memory lane (although there are a few musical passages that might sound familiar), and it does indeed sound very contemporary. It is not average, although, having only heard the album once; I would refrain from praising it as a “classic”. But it does have that potential…I just need to hear it a few more times. Of course the fact that I want to hear it again bodes well for the album.
So…I’ll give a brief, track-by-track rundown of The Next Day and a week from now, you can hear it for yourself.
We were given a small pamphlet with the lyrics to all 14 of the songs, so that made it a bit easier to take them in in one listen.
- The Next Day – The title track starts things off. It’s a mid-tempo affair with plenty of edgy guitar. It kinda reminded me of the sound of 1980’s Scary Monsters (which, like The Next Day, was produced by Tony Visconti). Lyrically, it’s pretty dark…Here I am not quite dying, My body left to rot in a hollow tree, Its branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me…actually that’s very dark. Later on it seems the song is an anti-religious diatribe. After referring to a “purple headed priest” he sings (in a voice reminiscent of The Man Who Sold The World)…They can work with Satan while they dress like the saints, They know God exists for the Devil told them so.
- Dirty Boys – This one features a stop/start rhythm and a honking sax. It’s slow and moody and the stabbing guitar riffs sound like something Adrian Belew would play. The lyrics are not as provocative at the previous track…We will go to Finchley Fair, I will buy you a feather hat, I will steal a cricket bat, smash some windows, make a noise.
- The Stars (Are Out Tonight) – The video for this track was just released a few days ago, so you can listen to it for yourself here. Its sleep, upbeat, propulsive and, I think, one of the highlights of the album. It manages to find a balance between sounding like classic Bowie and, at the same time, sounding completely fresh and contemporary.
- Love Is Lost – Track four begins with a pulsating bass line and organ. There is a breakdown in the middle with a bit of a drum solo. It seems to be about lost innocence, being sung to a twenty-two year old who has moved to a strange country…Say goodbye to the thrills of life where love was good, no love was bad. Wave goodbye to the life without pain…it sounds timeless.
- Where Are We Now? – This, of course, is the one that started it all, the first video, released on Bowie’s birthday in January. It’s a mellow, quite sad sounding song, but very good. I think there was a fear that the whole album would take on this tone. I can assure you, that is not the case. I the context of the rest of The Next Day, this song fits in brilliantly. One of Bowie’s most beautiful tunes and one of his most intimate, of not fragile, vocal performances.
- Valentine’s Day – This is not a love song, as Johnny Lydon would say. It’s a mid-tempo rocker with a basic four-on-the-floor drum beat. The intensity builds as the song achieves its glorious climax with piercing guitar and vocal interwoven at the end. Quite thrilling, really. The lyrics are somewhat obscure. Gotta have another listen.
- If You Can See Me – Loud, raucous and frantic. This one has a big, epic sound that demands to be played at maximum volume. It also contains a new word…fantasticalsation…now that he’s re-invented music, Bowie is re-inventing the English language! The cacophonic song recedes, rather that fades at the end. I found the second half of The Next Day, more immediately exciting that the first, and this track is a prime reason why.
- I’s Rather Be High – Well, if Bowie does tour again, I can see that this will be a crowd favourite, just so fans can sing along with the chorus…I’d rather be high, I’d rather be flying, I’d rather be dead, or out of my dead. A closer listen reveals a strong anti-war message. Musically, it’s another rocker that builds in intensity much like Cygnet Committee, from his Space Oddity album. It’s got a great melody to go along with it and is another highlight.
- Boss Of Me – No, Bowie’s not covering They Might Be Giants. This track features a funky bass line and a somewhat disjointed rhythm (not necessarily a bad thing). It also features a deep, dark sax, not unlike what Dana Colley use to play in the band Morphine.
- Dancing Out In Space – The further adventures of Major Tom? No, not really. This track has a lighter feel that most of the others. The basic and incessant drum pattern recalls Iggy’s (and Ziggy’s) Lust For Life. A guitar wails away throughout the track and there are horns mixed in as well. Perfect for, umm, dancing out in space.
- How Does The Grass Grow? – Definitely one of the best tracks on the record. It’s exciting sonically, features some ripping guitar work and contains a catchy “Ya Ya Ya Ya Ya…chorus. The end had me thinking of the outro to China Girl…no, not the steamy scene in the video clip…well, actually yes. Lyrically, it’s somewhat sentimental…Would you still love me if the clocks could go backwards, The girls would fill with blood and the grass would be green again…I can’t wait to hear this one again.
- (You Will) Set The World On Fire – Another contender for best track on the album. For those who like their Bowie loud…this one kicks off with a wicked guitar riff. AC/DC would be proud. It’s a shame Mick Ronson isn’t still around to play this one. I’m guessing it’s Earl Slick here and he sounds like he’s really letting loose. By contrast, the lyrics refer to the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s. Bowie name-checks Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Dylan (or “Bobby” here). The subject of the song, a “black girl and guitar”, is probably Odetta and this seems to be a tribute to her. But a hard-rocking tribute.
- You Feel So Lonely You Could Die – Another reference to the past…this time Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel. And speaking of the 50s, this downbeat track has a decidedly doo-wop flavour to it. Lyrically, it’s quite cinematic…Buildings crammed with people, landscape filled with wrath, grey concrete city, rain has wet the street. There is a brief coda that closes out the song featuring drums and synths. For some reason this one reminded me of Meat Loaf, but don’t let that put you off.
- Heat – The album ends on a pensive note. There is a rather lengthy into of bass and synths that builds tension to the track. It’s moody, eerie and beautifully produced with an acoustic guitar strummed that reminds me of Space Oddity. The character in the song sings about his father who ran a prison and claims…I am a seer, I am a liar. It’s an unsettling ending.
So, that’s it. According to the folks at Sony, there will be a deluxe version available with three bonus tracks. My overall feeling after listening to the album once through was relief and excitement. Relief, in that, thankfully, The Next Day is definitely not a dud, and excitement, because what I heard makes me want to hear it again.
Just one week to go!