- 08 Mar 23
Today marks the tenth anniversary of David Bowie's lauded album The Next Day. The chart-topping LP, co-produced with Tony Visconti, was Bowie's first studio release in ten years, following Reality in 2003. To celebrate, we're revisiting Paul Nolan's original album review – first published in Hot Press in 2013...
Age, mortality and reflections on the wild and sometimes complicated adventures of youth. These intertwining themes weigh heavily on David Bowie’s comeback album, from the artwork through the songs to the videos for ‘Where Are We Now?’ and ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’. It is fascinating that an artist of Bowie’s stature – whose artistic growth has more or less paralleled the development of rock music as a medium – has chosen to tackle such heavyweight subjects in the autumn of a glittering career, and one of the exciting aspects of listening to The Next Day for the first time is to see what kind of conclusions he comes to.
Whilst the lyrical content of The Next Day is consistently intriguing, Bowie certainly hasn’t lost his way with a melody during his prolonged sabbatical either, as evidenced by the opening, title track. The song bounces from the speakers in impressive style, a ball of agitated art-funk energy reminiscent of the classic ‘Fashion’, with Bowie singing lines like, “Here I am / Not quite right.”
Next up is the woozy, seasick ballad ‘Dirty Boys’, which finds The Dame getting his Brecht / Weill groove on, and serves as a paean to tearaway youth: “When the sun goes down and the dye is cast / And you have no choice / We will run with dirty boys.”
The inspired video for the single ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’ is a meditation on ageing, with Bowie and Tilda Swinton as a comfortable couple, unsettled by the arrival of a motley, youthful crew next door – including an androgynous lookalike of Bowie in his LA period. The song itself, a driving, urgent rocker, has a lovely lyric about the human tragi-comedy playing itself out against the permanent backdrop of the stars.
It segues into ‘Love Is Lost’, a bristling slab of art rock, with the singer reflecting on the challenges of early adulthood: “It’s the darkest hour / You’re 22, the voice of youth / Love is lost... wave goodbye to a life without pain.”
Many of today’s premier rock acts – including, amongst many others, Blur, Radiohead, the Manics, Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem – have at different times doffed the cap to Bowie, sometimes to the point of borrowing snatches of his songs and incorporating them into their own material. As one of the most iconic figures in rock, Bowie is in the privileged position of having to borrow from no one but himself. Different elements of his astonishingly eclectic back catalogue are plundered for The Next Day, ranging from the techno beats of ‘If You Can See Me’ (reminiscent of the severely underrated ‘90s albums Outside and Earthling) to the ‘Loving The Alien’-style distressed art-rock of ‘Boss Of Me’.
Throughout, Bowie’s band – including Irish guitarist Gerry Leonard, and long-time collaborators Gail Ann Dorsey (bass) and Zachary Alford (drums) – are in top form, whether creating an elegant, hypnotic rhythm on ‘I’d Rather Be High’, striking up an infectious groove on the space-age funk number ‘Dancing Out In Space’, or simply kicking out the jams on the wailing ‘(You Will) Set The World On Fire’. The record is also given a thoroughly modern sheen by producer Tony Visconti, renowned for his work on classics like Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and Low. The Next Day is identifiably a David Bowie album, but very much a 21st century one.
The theme of mortality, flagged in the wonderful first single ‘Where Are We Now?’ (which looked back on Bowie’s ‘70s Berlin period), is to the fore in the album’s climactic closing tracks.
The melancholy ballad ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’ finds Bowie crooning lines such as “You’ve got the blues my friend”, before reassuring “You are a sound without an end.” However, Bowie was never really one for sentiment and lest anyone get too cosy, the strain of bleakness that has always underpinned his work comes to the fore on the final track, ‘Heat’.
Over sinister, horror-movie ambience (strongly redolent of Scott Walker’s experimental masterwork Tilt, an album beloved of Bowie) the singer intones “The songs are dust / the world will end / the night was always falling.” Even with all his experience and achievements, Bowie still declares in the song’s central refrain, “I don’t know who I am.” It would appear that Major Tom has come back down to earth with a bang.
With The Next Day, David Bowie has delivered the goods and then some. If he were to play a few live shows, he really would be spoiling us.