When David Bowie released his previous album, Reality:
Senator John Kerry was challenging incumbent George W. Bush for the presidency;
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube didn’t exist;
The war in Iraq was but six months old;
Michael Jackson was alive;
So were Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein;
TV broadcast signals were transmitted through the airwaves;
Eminem won an Oscar for 8 Mile.
It seems like a long time ago in a pop culture far, far away. And in some senses, it was. Consider how rapidly pop culture and technology changed in the past decade (and contemplate what that swiftness might be like over the next ten years). That my friends, was the last time we heard from David Bowie on record. He toured extensively in support of Reality (releasing a live album and DVD documenting the tour), and there were a few catalog releases as well. Sure, he’d occasionally pop up in other media, be it portraying Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006), lending his voice to the animated Arthur and the Invisibles (2006) and Spongebob Squarepants (2007), or his much praised cameo on Extras (2006). Even so, Bowie’s kept quiet for the better part of a decade, leaving many (myself included) to assume he’d quietly bowed out of the music biz. Then out of nowhere, we got a single and a release date for a new album, and finally, the album is here.
First, put aside any unreasonable expectations. Bowie is a fantastic artist admittedly past his prime. Disavow the notion that this will be his best album since Scary Monsters (a superlative laid upon seemingly every Bowie album for the last 25 years). Did you do it? Good. Now this doesn’t mean that Bowie is incapable of making good music at this point in his career. As proven by his two previous releases (2002’s Heathen and 2003’s Reality), the latter-day Bowie can make some great, sensibly mature music that suits his age and his legendary catalog.
And now for the meat and potatoes. I know it’s taken us a while to get here, so let’s get down to brass tacks: is The Next Day any good?
Yes, yes it is.
I admit not being taken by the lead single, “Where Are We Now?” which was a little too adult contemporary for my tastes (although the song has grown on me quite a bit). But The Next Day truly delivers. And While the album doesn’t break new ground (see introductory disclaimer), it is a stunning reminder of why we love David Bowie, and why any new material from him is something to celebrate.
The Next Day reassembles many musicians from Bowie’s past, including Gail Ann Dorsey (bass), Zachary Alford (drums), Sterling Campbell (drums), and the incomparable Earl Slick, the guitar-slinger whose relationship with Bowie goes back to the Diamond Dogs tour. The album also continues Bowie’s long-standing partnership with producer Tony Visconti, who was responsible for a number of Bowie classics from Space Oddity through Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).
The album is incredibly consistent over its 14 tracks, and The Next Day complements Bowie’s last two LPs in its overall sound. Yet what is most interesting about The Next Day is that without stooping to desperate attempts to replicate previous successes, the album is sprinkled with echoes of Bowie’s past. Portions of “The Next Day” recall Lodger‘s “Repetition,” “Dirty Boys” harkens back to the sax-drenched darkness of “Sister Midnight,” “Dancing Out in Space” is a more organic take on some of Bowie’s poppier ’80s material, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” briefly incorporates the trademark drum beat of “Five Years,” and rockers such as “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” sound as if Bowie is warming up the ol’ Tin Machine.
These subtle references may very well not have been intentional. Even so, they provide an important undercurrent to the album. It’s quite possible that The Next Day will be Bowie’s final LP. If that’s the case, the album’s sense of self-awareness of not only Bowie’s talents, but his legacy provide a fitting capstone to one of the most consistently innovative catalogs in the history of popular music. If this does come to pass, Bowie could not have crafted a greater album to end with.