The Next Day
“Here I am, not quite dying,” David Bowie sings on the title track and opening song of his comeback album. There had been newspaper articles fretting about his health, and a decade-long silence so deafening that alt-rock band The Flaming Lips were even moved to write a song entitled Is David Bowie Dying?
But beginning with that surprise single release on his 66th birthday last month, he’s jumped out from behind the sofa at his own wake, and the relief is palpable. The earliest reviews have reached a dense lather of adoration, so we must step back a little and admit that there would not be quite so many stars being thrown around had this album appeared 18 months after 2003’s Reality.
Nevertheless, standards on The Next Day’s 14 tracks (with three forgettable extras on a deluxe edition) are exceptionally high. A cover that blithely slaps a white box onto the classic “Heroes” album sleeve confidently invites comparison with his finest work.
He’s nostalgic here and there, referencing his Berlin period in the elegaic lyrics of Where Are We Now? and revisiting the Greenwich Village folk scene, visualising Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, on the hard riffing (You Will) Set the World on Fire. But he’s also sonically daring, abandoning melody on the jerky, jazzy If You Can See Me and employing a sleazy baritone sax on Dirty Boys.
His voice roams wide, sneering and nasal on The Next Day, right in your ear on Boss of Me, a doomed croon on the bleak closer, Heat. Guitar-wise, there’s an urgent solo on the polished Valentine’s Day and a propulsive acoustic strum driving The Stars (Are Out Tonight).
If the latter’s seeming interest in celebrity culture, with its namechecks for “Brigitte, Jack and Kate and Brad”, sees Bowie stooping to our level, elsewhere the cryptic intellectualism is more intriguing. There’s Vladimir Nabokov, “sun-licked now, on the beach at Grunewald” on I’d Rather Be High.
The title track is thrillingly vivid, with a character hauled through the mud “to the feet of the purple-headed priest”. Oh look, there’s 19th-century Belgian symbolist Georges Rodenbach on the brilliant, woozy Dancing out in Space — hi, Georges!
The album will begin streaming online in the next few days before its full release, when we will see if it can really stand the test of time like its many extraordinary predecessors. We can all agree it is better than the silence — a long, long way better.
The Next Day is out on March 11.