Saturday, January 14, 2017
But if David Bowie is anything he is uneven, so it's little surprise that's as true about his glory years as his (admittedly arguable) years in the desert. He wrote and performed terrific music. When he put away his underlying alien persona for one more on the order of a refined gentleman of the world, a lot of us checked out. There was some merit, I can still find it, in Let's Dance, as there was merit (or likely) in Tonight, Never Let Me Down, Black Tie White Noise, Outside, Earthling, Hours, Heathen, on and on. Some were hailed as comebacks. Some I don't know at all, full disclosure, but I know the majority were variously disappointing and/or underwhelming. In short, I didn't think he had another good album in him, let alone a great one.
I'm happy to be proven wrong but it took me some time getting here. And Bowie too, in fairness. It was his first new album in 10 years, since Reality in 2003, and frankly no one was expecting it at all. Much as it foretold what was to come with Blackstar, the existence of The Next Day simply appeared one day, on Bowie's 66th birthday, as an announcement and a drop of the "Where Are We Now?" song. The album cover design picks up the silver-gray cover of "Heroes" but blots most of it with a white square and "The Next Day" in black letters. As someone who was arrested by that very "Heroes" cover in 1977, finding the album by luck days after release as a used promo copy, it seemed preposterous that he would attempt that album's heroic reinvention of himself, begun in Low (and the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth). I was vaguely embarrassed for him for most of 2013. But the "Where Are We Now?" song kept nagging at me. I loved it immediately and always. It is beautiful not least for its formal embrace of all the emotional paradox of time (a long-term theme. Compare "Time takes a cigarette / Puts it in your mouth"). So "Where are we now?" indeed, a poignant question at any age, in any time, because it's the asking that brings it into focus and raises the heart.
With all this "next day" and "where are we now?" talk, Bowie was evidently on about the 36 years it takes to get from 1977 to 2013. In terms of most of the music, however, it's a slightly shorter matter of 33 years, because this album most feels like a direct next step from Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). "Where Are We Now?" is something of a stylistic outlier, and the only song that cracked the charts even in the UK, where it entered the top 10. The follow-up single and as it happens my next-favorite song is "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," which speaks of the eternal in the slightly cheesy terms of night skyscapes, but convincingly so, harking back to the original tin can and whipping itself into glorious heady soaring moments now arriving in movie soundtracks until the end of your life. "The Next Day," the third single, also did not get far on the charts. It is like the rest of the album, full of squealing guitars, odd shifts in tempo and tone, flashes of poetry, and players that sound like they're enjoying themselves. The whole album is a solid set like that, with the interlude of "Where Are We Now?" I love it.
Much of the magic seems to be due to the reconnection with long-time collaborator Tony Visconti, who coproduced the album with Bowie and played guitar, bass, and many other instruments (he contributed string arrangements too). Visconti is there for the next and last album as well, Blackstar. In the canon of David Bowie albums I'm inclined to rank The Next Day pretty high, top 10 if not top 5 (though I suppose I might be overrating it in the flush of the moment). I have a lot of regard for Blackstar too, but it's more on the order of how I feel about Lou Reed's Berlin. For various reasons they are very different albums from what I expected. The wonder and pleasure of The Next Day is that it's the best possible result, a kind of lost album that, at its best, touches Bowie's greatest heights. Maybe the closest comparison is the late lost albums of the Velvet Underground, but The Next Day is no lost album. It has more the poise of earned wisdom, but in some ways, for better or worse, it also feels like what we should have got in 1983.