Sunday, March 17, 2013

David Bowie - The Next Day [album review]

Released March 12th in North America

David Bowie's return is definitely a big deal, although he hasn't been quite as reclusive over the past decade as some media outlets covering his just-released The Next Day album might have you believe. Granted, The Next Day is his first collection of new material since 2003's Reality album (whose supporting tour had to be cut short in 2004 due to Bowie's emergency angioplasty surgery), but the past 10 years has seen the British icon reveal himself occasionally. Bowie has made a handful of acting appearances (notably as himself in a very funny cameo in Ricky Gervais' Extras TV series, as well as a role playing Nikola Tesla in the Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman-starring film The Prestige), guest appearances on several albums from other artists (including one by actress Scarlett Johansson), and about a half-dozen one-off live performances, with the last of those being a brief set at a 2006 charity concert. But sure, I'll agree that in the fast five years or so Bowie has been about as low profile as a music figure of his stature can be in this day and age. So that The Next Day arrived in such a wonderfully stealthful manner only adds to the enjoyment of hearing new music from him after so long, because heaven knows that there isn't much mystery left in rock 'n roll any more.

Unencumbered by record label deadlines, Bowie decided to wait until he had something meaningful to say musically, eventually starting recording sessions about a year-and-a-half ago at New York's Magic Shop studio with long-time producer Tony Visconti and musicians from his past, including drummers Sterling Campbell and Zachary Alford, guitarists Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard, and bassist Gale Ann Dorsey. Everyone involved in the sessions, including studio employees, had to sign non-disclosure agreements and the project's existence amazingly stayed a secret right up until the bizarre video for the album's first single "Where Are We Now?" (viewable here) was posted on Bowie's revamped website on his 66th birthday in January, along with the album's surprise announcement. True to form, Bowie's marketing strategy for The Next Day is, for the most part, highly unusual: he's done zero interviews to promote it, won't be touring or doing any live performances to support it, and he put out some head scratching full-page ads for the release in British newspapers. This one displays all of the album's lyrics in four columns of unbroken text (as it appears in the CD booklet) and doesn't even mention his name or the title of the album. More conventional has been the release over the past week of The Next Day's lyrics on Facebook and Twitter, plus the release in late February of the oddball video for second single "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)", starring Tilda Swinton and directed by Hamilton, Ontario-raised Floria Sigismondi. 

And let's talk about that puzzling album cover before we go any further. Only someone who keeps you guessing as much as Bowie does would think to re-release one of his old album covers (1977's Heroes) obscured by a big ugly white box containing the title of his latest work. If you can believe it, the cover is actually the end result of hundreds of concepts from graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook, who explained on his blog that the chosen artwork "is about the spirit of great pop or rock music which is 'of the moment', forgetting or obliterating the past." I may not be buying, so to speak, what the designer and Bowie are selling in this particular case, but Barnbrook gets a mulligan on this one from me, based on the awesomeness of his album cover for Bowie's 2002 Heathen album, whose image I have framed and hanging on my wall just above the computer I'm writing this review on. 

So with all that background detail out of the way, is The Next Day worthy of the "greatest comeback album of all time" tag that some reviews have claimed? I won't go quite that far with the hyperbole, but it is damn fine and very much an album that feels in step with where Bowie left off with the excellent Reality. Of The Next Day's 14 tracks, only five clock in at over four minutes and none of that lot come close to pushing the five minute mark. Like the 24 other studio albums from Bowie's diverse catalog, The Next Day's artsy experimentation and dense lyrical and musical ideas make it a slow one to take in initially, so the concise running times of the songs almost seem to add an extra hurdle in easily digesting the work ("Dirty Boys", in particular, fades out much earlier than you expect it to, just as some honking baritone sax riffs are picking up steam). For most artists, the slow-moving "Where Are We Now?" would be a highly illogical choice as a first single (especially from someone who's been out of the game for so long), but chart hits are clearly something Bowie is long past caring about. The beautifully arranged song also features one of his best vocal performances on the album (God, how I missed that distinct vibrato!) and is one of the more lyrically introspective tracks, as Bowie recalls his time living and recording in Berlin in the 70s. Multi-tracked vocals sung in a weirdly monotone style dominate the funky title track, which Visconti suggests may take its inspiration from Bowie's relatively new fascination with medieval history (other left-of-centre references on The Next Day: writer Vladimir Nabokov, Belgian Symbolist poet and novelist Georges Rodenbach, and part of a soliloquy from Macbeth). The former Thin White Duke's blue-eyed soul side (or should I say blue and brown-eyed soul?) also comes out on the rhythmically off-kilter "Dirty Boys" and "Boss Of Me". There's a distinct 60s vibe to the solid "I'd Rather Be High", wherein the song's young soldier protagonist wishes he were living a normal teenage life instead of "training these guns on the men in the sand". The topic of celebrity culture superficiality isn't exactly novel, but it's a perpetually relevant one and gets examined here on The Next Day's finest track, "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)". The song harkens back to Bowie's 80s sound, which is also evident on the bouncy "Dancing Out In Space", "Love Is Lost", and "How Does The Grass Grow?", which would have been right at home on 1983's Let's Dance album. "If You Can See Me" steps back to the frenetic drum 'n' bass territory explored on Bowie's late 90s Earthling album, with Dorsey contributing some absolutely soaring background vocals. Glam rock lives again on the epic ballad "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" (featuring a coda that nicely uses the drum beat from 1972's "Five Years") and "Valentine's Day", probably The Next Day's catchiest track. The song's sunny melodies contrast with its dark subject matter about a teenage boy about to go on a school shooting spree and while I mostly love the track, I positively hate the baffling addition of background vocals yelling "yeah!" and "whoa!" over the last third of it. Less categorizable in relation to Bowie's past work is the cracking "(You Will) Set The World On Fire", a guitar-driven stop/start number set in the Greenwich Village scene of the early 60s, with Slick turning in a blistering guitar solo.         

Normally I don't cozy up to decidedly weird music and the artists that make it - David Bowie, however, I make an exception for. The man has consistently intrigued throughout his long career with his visual flair and reinvention, inherent coolness, and ambitious music. That musical ambition and risk-taking doesn't always work for me (such as on "Heat", The Next Day's only stinker that dawdles for four-and-a-half minutes of moody keyboard soundscapes, acoustic guitars, and jazzy fretless bass), but it's all part of the package, I suppose. The Next Day offers plenty to devour for longtime fans of the enigmatic artist (as I realize I'm just about out of synonyms for "eccentric" on my online thesaurus page), touching on many of his past eras, while still very much continuing the progressive ethos that Bowie has rigidly followed for four-and-a-half decades in the music business. A most welcome return.

Rating: A