David Bowie is old, and he lives in his own world, apart from everyone else. That’s what this album says. He had all but disappeared for ten years, and then on his birthday he announced The Next Day. From the self-defacing album art, the newly developed font for the title, the lack of covers, the secrecy, and Visconti’s own comments about how they don’t listen to contemporary music, this was an album made in a bubble. The Next Day doesn’t sound like anybody but David Bowie. This is in stark contrast to almost the entirety of his career, where he borrowed from his surroundings, appropriating them at his own convenience.
This album could have been a posthumous release, a lumping of a bunch of recordings he had done over the years even. In fact, even the announcement and the release of the album hardly contained Bowie at all. I can’t remember Bowie actually being involved in the announcements, just Tony Visconti operating as his speaker. It wasn’t a new, current sound like other albums he had done. The album art didn’t have Bowie on it, and it came off like a joke at first. I’ve come to like it and appreciate what it says about design and art since then, and it’s so very Bowie, like claiming that his “lost” album is his favorite. The art encapsulates perfectly the album. It wasn’t “new” so much as writing over his old music.
I keep wondering if Bowie knew about his illness when he was making this album. All I heard was that, as of 2016, he had been diagnosed just a year and a half before, meaning that he couldn’t have known at this point. There had been so many rumors, I remember reading people saying he was dying. The Flaming Lips even wrote a song about it, tacky title but good song. Where Are We Now? seems like a cruel joke. Bowie’s back, but he sounds like he’s singing his own eulogy. The next two singles, The Stars Are Out Tonight and The Next Day, are a lot more lively, but continue to hint on that same feeling. Despite singing with utmost vitriol and anger, making lyrical and vocal delivery references to some of the songs on Low, The Next Day’s chorus still has him singing, “Here I am, not quite dying.” Not quite. On The Stars and in its video, he plays the Bowie of the past ten years, content in his neat little domestic life, attacked by the specters of his past, actual doppelgängers. He’s even married to Tilda Swinton in it (and my heart burst with jealousy). He sings, “I hope they live forever”, and I immediately think about him, a star himself.
Drenched in nostalgia, the album sounds like it was left to the cobwebs in the attic for a while, with old-sounding production created by mostly old guys, it’s an album without a future. When you think about David Bowie, you think about the ‘70s or Let’s Dance, but one of his most important albums was released in the ‘90s, Outside. This is where If You Can See Me and Heat come from, like Bowie trying to write the follow-up to that album – not to mention Blackstar. Heat is my favorite of all the songs. It’s bleak, thick with heady atmospheric synths, Gail Ann Dorsey playing a bass so buoyant it could shake the entire earth, and an acoustic guitar that makes it feel real and here and now.
But for as old as this album sounds, there are some amazing techniques. I’m thinking of the crunchy guitars and the controlled echo of the drums of Love is Lost. It’s merciless, grounding your ego into the dust, and instead of taking a look at all your accomplishments as you die, he’s basically saying you haven’t done a thing and it was wasted time. One of the rare contemporary moments has James Murphy making an awesome remix of the song on the bonus disc built on a clapping beat.
The album ends perfectly on Heat, but the bonus EP has so many great songs, too. In fact, half the songs in the middle of the album sound like b-sides, that could have been put on the EP themselves. Atomica starts out pretty basic but quickly gets weird as he tries to sing two lines in the space of one and sings in cliches. It’s like a very knowing self-parody. The same goes for Like a Rocket Man, Born in a UFO, God Bless the Girl (my second favorite bonus track), I’ll Take You There, and So She (my favorite bonus track), sounding like he’s trying to write songs for the ‘70s, and I’m eating it up. I’d Rather Be High gets a wonderful “Venetian Mix” with harpsichord. They aren’t amazing songs, but they’re fun little detours.
The songs that were left on the album though don’t try to be songs from the past so much as reworkings of the past, getting past sounds into the present. Dirty Boys, Bowie sounding as beat-up and ready to beat up as Tom Waits, has a great nod to China Girl. Dancing Out in Space is bouncy and fun despite probably being about someone dead in space. Valentine’s Day may be a mid-tempo rocker, but the backing she-la-la-las are wonderful, and the anger Bowie put into the video of a song ostensibly about Valentine’s Day is a riot. Gail Ann Dorsey’s excellent bass is all over this album, most memorably on Boss of Me for me. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is one of the most powerful of the stretch of songs after If You Can See Me, the most talked-about moment of course being the terribly conspicuous callback to Five Years. Who knew it was only three.
Would The Next Day have been as well-received had he not been retired for so long? I doubt it, but I don’t think he would have made it or anything like it. It’s not that far removed from what you would have expected his follow-up to Reality to sound like, but at the same time, this is the album of someone who was only making music because he wanted to. It’s hardly even a concise album, more of a spring cleaning of everything he had in his head for ten years. It sounds out of time, borrowing from Tin Machine, sampling his own songs, re-engineering the past for the present. Music doesn’t always stand on its own. Like Station to Station or the Berlin trilogy whose enjoyment is enhanced with knowledge of their backstory, The Next Day is a better album because it broke his long absence. Bowie was back, and he was gone as soon as he arrived.