Review: 'The Next Day' by David Bowie

by Dave Allen

Bowie in the Sixties
(by Emma O'Leary)
I was a teenager in 1960s Portsmouth. At the heart of the local Mod scene we had a wonderful little club called the Birdcage where we saw all the live acts that counted - the Who or the Small Faces, Little Richard or Wilson Pickett and, in the changes from 1966 onwards, Cream, Pink Floyd and the psychedelic pioneers.
Not all the acts were well known back then but some would become famous in later years. Marc Bolan came with John’s Children, Rod Stewart with Steam Packet and on Saturday 30 October 1965, we saw a cockney-sounding bloke called David Bowie and his band the Lower Third. They were a bit blues, a bit Who (second-class bands tended that way back then), and no one took much notice. But mid-60s Bowie was desperate to ‘make it’. He appeared on a briefly ‘cool’ TV Show, “A Whole Scene Going” to complain about the persecution of young men with long hair although nobody paid much attention to his music.
Bowie was nonetheless an opportunist. Post-war British kids, were fed an increasing diet of Dan Dare, Marvel Comic’s superheroes and on 60s TV, Dr Who and Star Trek. The Birdcage and the first-generation Mods had gone by 1968 when Kubrick released 2001 but while the Hippies ate flowers and kissed trees, Bowie’s moment came with the increasingly urban, technological utopian and dystopian visions of Sci Fi – visions to which he made a significant contribution.
The Ziggy Stardust era
(by Emma O'Leary)
In July 1969 he released “Space Oddity” and just days later it was heard on the soundtrack to the BBC’s broadcasts of the first moon landing. Ever since, Bowie has been the consummate composer of soundtracks for our times and his fictions – most particularly of course in the latter case, Ziggy Stardust.
In this respect his work is less personal than the other major singer-songwriters while the sound on his albums is always the sound of a solo artist who matured as a member of various bands, whether the King Bees, the Lower Third or the Spiders from Mars. Even on an album as stylistically disparate as this new one it sounds as though Bowie and his band are ‘together’.
On my first day of the Next Day it seemed that nothing had changed as I felt frequently that I might have been listening to a track from Ziggy Stardust, Heroes, or even later work like Ashes to Ashes. Dylan has manufactured an old man’s voice with a cracked authenticity that surpasses many of his mentors while poor old ‘Macca’ croaks and strains to entertain Her Majesty with his sounds of the sixties but David Bowie sounds still just like Bowie.
Bowie in 2013 (photo by Jimmy King)
Nonetheless, something has shifted. The young(ish) man who lauded the “Young Americans” seems more than ever aware that such youthful exhilaration will never be a part of his life again. Instead The Next Day seems to me to be the autobiography of a man who revisits past haunts and loves while also examining again and again the styles and sounds he has grown up with through his decades in the world of ‘pop’.
When he permits himself a glimpse into the future, the images and sounds offer little hope. In “Love is Lost”, for example, he advises us to “wave goodbye to the life without pain”. The title track “The Next Day” reminds us “Here I am, not quite dying” and you believe him for the energy in the track and from “Dancing Out in Space” – a space where no-one can watch you dance, which like so much of Bowie’s best work, pays homage to the central role of dancing in popular music. In “Dirty Boys” he will “smash some windows, make some noise” as he revisits (his?) post-war bombsite gang life or perhaps accompanies a composer’s cut of Clockwork Orange. The track drifts out on his frequently funky drummer, saxophone and retreating slide guitar; then the beat is more insistently four-to-the-floor as we’re back in space with “The Stars (Are Out Tonight”).
“Where Are We Now” is the poignant longing of a man looking back but reassuring himself that “as long as there’s you” there’s me. Although slower, it hints at the anthemic quality of “Heroes”. The insistent drum beat of “If You Can See Me” tries to disrupt the declamatory speech (hardly singing) and threatening keyboard, as the modernism of atonality, noise and collage come to pop.
There are more intimations of mortality in “I’d Rather be High” as he “scrambles to the graveyard” until we realise this is his 2013 anti-war protest song – the genre isn’t dead yet. Later he slows down to talk “in the dark” but feeling “So Lonely You Could Die” in a dystopian urban revisiting of the fears of “Five Years” – the first track from that career changing moment that was Ziggy Stardust. Did Ziggy really die or is he still with us, in disguise? “Set the World on Fire” reminds us of Bowie’s early days, in its echoes of the Who’s first single “I Can’t Explain”, or perhaps the Kinks “You Really Got Me”. This is almost David Jones territory.
“Heat” is another vision of a world facing its final days from a man who tells himself “I don’t know who I am”. Bowie’s from the days of Biba but in these days of the infant Bieber, nothing here sounds like the work of an old man – the words are delivered by an ageless Bowie voice. But the words strike me, a fellow 60-something, as the reflections of a wise, intelligent old man drawing together a lifetime of experiences and crucially a lifetime in his art form and re-presenting all this with a palpable sense that as we approach the end, the only certainty is uncertainty: “I would slide away, further out to sea”
Is it one of his best? I’ve no idea yet, but it might be. Bowie started out in the days of seven inches of black plastic bought in the local record store. But The Next Day is now today, and from early morning I’ve been wandering around the house playing my download on Ipads and Ipods, through docking systems and headphones. It’s Bowie’s world, he simply had to wait for the rest of us to catch up. Maybe he’s done it again? Maybe it’s his symphony for the ageing?


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