So David Bowie is back. If you hadn’t noticed, didn’t care or never heard of him, that situates you very much in the minority. On January 8th, 2013, the reactive fanfare that accompanied the sudden and unexpected delivery of ‘Where Are We Now?’, Bowie’s first new material in a decade, was nothing short of astounding. With radio stations falling over themselves to play it and news sites in some kind of keyboard-mashing frenzy, trying bring the news to us, it’s a small miracle that nobody was injured.
Here we are nearly two months later and the album is about to appear with an equally seismic thud. Available to stream since last week, most, if not all, Bowie fans will no doubt have consumed their body-weight in The Next Day already, and the early response has been good, generally.
Opening with a prevailing sense of musical frivolity, the title track is a total curveball. But don’t be fooled by its jaunty tempo and wicked little jangling guitars. As ominous and looming as the first single sounded, up against lyrics such as “Here I am, not quite dying, my body left to rot in a dying tree”, it could be taken as cheery when compared with ‘The Next Day’. So far, so good, however; it’s almost vintage Bowie, with his half-restricted, half-nasal voice sounding as good as ever.
The next two tracks, ‘Dirty Boys’ and the recently-released ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ bring out the best from the album’s producer (and long-time Bowie collaborator) Tony Visconti. Both songs not only manage to remind (or inform) the listener of what made Bowie so extraordinary in his prime, but the sheer surprise and joy that one derives from hearing them would have you believe that this may very well still be his prime.
‘Love Is Lost’ is yet another reminder of the compositional power Bowie possesses. Its heartbeat rhythm is offset by some fine and understated use of an organ. The result is a relentless yet subtle prod towards introspection as he repeatedly asks “Oh, what have you done?”. ‘Where Are We Now?’ – which it has to be said, remains divisive – delivers even more food for reflective thought. With some disliking the dynamics between the curiously high positioning of his voice in the mix and the juxtaposition of electronic/piano-based music, it was a brave choice of single with which to announce his return.
‘Valentine’s Day’ is, again, reminiscent of the Bowie of old with a partiality to extending vowels back and forward across notes. There’s ore than a hint of filler about it, though. It does serve to introduce a change in the album’s trajectory, with ‘If You Could See Me’ and ‘I’d Rather Be High’ looking further afield than inwards. Arguably, the album’s second half (and there is a second half) lacks some of the immediate appeal of the first, but ‘How Does The Grass Grow’, ‘(You Will) Set The World On Fire’ and ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’ provide some genuinely breathtaking moments and the best use of “ya ya ya’s” you could hope for.
Bowie’s voice is solid and as familiar as ever; and, on the whole, The Next Day is a great album. It starts incredibly strongly, finishes with conviction and will probably go some way to conflating Bowie’s legend with the idea of a suddenly tangible future that he is clearly in control of.