CD Review: David Bowie – The Next Day

CD Review: David Bowie – The Next Day
All Access Review: B+

David Bowie - The Next Day 2013
Nobody knows what The Next Day will bring, especially for the unpredictable David Bowie. His future uncertain, having turned 65 in January, Bowie has been adamant that his days of touring are behind him. And having reached retirement age, it begs the question: Is this Bowie’s last hurrah? From the title of his latest LP, it appears even Bowie has no idea. There is, after all, an incredible amount of ambiguity in those three little words.

Does it mean he plans on doing more recording and that he’s going back to work … well, The Next Day? Or, does it mean he’s moving on to another chapter in his life, one that doesn’t involve music at all? It could be he’s confronting his own mortality and wondering just how many “next days” he has left. Then again, maybe it’s simply a more artful and humanistic expression of that old Yiddish proverb that, when translated, says, “Man plans and God laughs.”

As far as the planning for The Next Day goes, Bowie and his co-conspirators had to chuckle at how successful they were in keeping word of this new record under wraps. The Conclave of Cardinals was conducted with less secrecy. When news arrived that a fresh Bowie record was imminent, it was met with expressions of shock and surprise. That it could possibly contain his most inspired work in ages was even more stunning, considering the parade of lackluster and unnecessarily difficult albums he’d released since Let’s Dance or Scary Monsters, the LP that seems to have provided the template of experimental accessibility for The Next Day.

Coming 10 years after 2003’s Reality – the successor to 2002’s HeathenThe Next Day finds Bowie as open and revealing about himself as he’s ever been, and that, in and of itself, is noteworthy for a man whose multiple personalities and masquerades – from that of the Thin White Duke to Ziggy Stardust – have played out on very public stages over the years. It should come as no surprise then that, amid the treatises on loneliness, regret and wrenching heartache, questions of identity should arise in the alien soundscape “Heat,” with its quiet, martial drums, mournful strings and melancholic acoustic guitar strum marching gently under wraiths of lightly corrosive feedback. Here, Bowie’s weary, confessional expression of confusion and despair mesmerizes, just as it does in the elegant, smoky torch song “Where Are We Now?” Gorgeously rendered with dark, lush piano and watery pools of electric guitar, it’s a number that’s wide awake at 3 a.m. contemplating the erosion of time and life’s little mysteries. Sleep is overrated anyway.

Darker and even more stylish, with seductive, irresistibly melodic contours and a streaming pace pushed along by smooth, taut bass, “The Stars (Are out Tonight)” shimmers like a glassy city harbor in the clear moonlight. And Bowie’s increasingly urgent vocals and voyeuristic, unsettling poetry heighten the drama and paranoia of an absolutely intoxicating song that could rank among his best, even if it does bear an uncanny resemblance to “China Girl.” Even Iggy Pop, however, would forgive the likeness. Like Scary Monsters, though, the classy, well-manicured The Next Day spikes its arty pop-rock punch bowl with the slightest traces of intriguing discord, the off-kilter vocalizing in “How Does the Grass Grow?” being one example and the slashing guitar playing off the melodic buoyancy of the title track being another. In “If You Can See Me” the track’s compelling stop-start funk movements and dizzying array of beats – straight out of Radiohead’s playbook – dive right into a rushing sonic flood, as Bowie’s delivery shifts from robotic malfunction and threatening aspect to an all-too-human pleading for salvation and recognition.

Rather clunky and clumsily executed, “Dirty Boys” and the dull, thudding “Love is Lost” are minor missteps, as is “Boss of Me,” with its sleazy saxophones and alarmingly low energy levels. The interminable sameness of “Dancing Out in Space” is hard to get though, as well. Nevertheless, even these flawed pieces have qualities that make them compelling. Essentially, The Next Day is a tour of some of the most interesting and exquisitely detailed aural architecture Bowie has designed in recent years, and when the serrated edge, swirling beauty and propulsive drive of “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” breaks through the door Bowie is redeemed. Bowie is fighting against the dying of the light, and he’s winning, despite any doubts he may have.
–  Peter Lindblad

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