Other Voices 004

Saturday, 23 March 2013

If history has proven anything, it has proven that David Bowie has been most regularly at his best when he's rocking out a grand statement and challenging what his fans expect of him musically. This trend has been the rule for decades; every time Bowie has changed theatrical personae (from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke to the dark artist of music which offered up the Berlin trilogy to the man out of time from the Eighties to the gothic and industrially touched cyber-surfer of the Nineties to the neoclassicist of the early new millennium), the new musical ideas which have come with that new face have been met with tremendous skepticism – until fans are able to absorb the new music. When the singer retired Ziggy Stardust and introduced the Thin White Duke, for example, fans were outraged – until they heard Diamond Dogs. When fans heard that Bowie wanted to strip his sound down while he was in Berlin, they doubted him until they heard what that meant on Low, and ultimately praised him for the effort on Heroes. Supporters laughed dismissively at the idea of a fifty-year-old Bowie becoming interested in Jungle and industrial music in the Nineties – until the singer tipped his hand first with Outside and then warped into hyper-drive with Earthling.

At every turn through his career, David Bowie was pretty clear in his intentions for what he wanted to accomplish creatively, but his fans always seemed to be confused at first and needed to be won. Ironically, with the release of The Next Day, Bowie has turned virtually everything about his usual practices on their collective head (no interviews have been done and no hype about Bowie's recent change in label and distribution for this release, there isn't even new album art – the cover of The Next Day features a copy of the cover of Heroes with what looks like a Post-It note stuck over it, obscuring the singer's face), and now long-time fans are lining up, excited at the prospect of new music. Now that, as they say, is the definition of irony.

As ironic as one might find the release and physical aesthetic of The Next Day equally ironic is the fact that no talk has been generated (yet) about the new thematic/dramatic angle which is presented pretty clearly to listeners with this album. Here, listeners will find out what the term “neoclassicist Bowie” is intended to mean on the singer's terms, as this record incorporates elements of everything the singer has done but also charts a bit of new ground too.

Ten years after David Bowie released his last album, the ease with which the singer just falls into a smooth and solid ehythm will almost cause longtime fans to laugh. The same rhythm section which helped to bring Earthling to life in 1997 (bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford) coupled with the guitarists who appeared on Reality (Gerry Leonard and Earl Slick) return and launch earnestly into a sinewy, Stones-y rock groove for the album's title track, but there's actually more at work here than listeners may notice at first; if they're willing to listen closely listeners will find chaotic stray sparks of guitar chaos reminiscent of Reeves Gabrels' chops from Earthling buried in the mix. Those parts feed into the solid, Stones-y ones and ultimately bring a new consciousness to the experience; after listeners notice them, they'll become fascinating and impossible to ignore. As soon as listeners discover that nuance, they'll find that it feeds perfectly into the heavy stomp  of “Dirty Boys.”

After “The Next Day” bleeds out, “Dirty Boys” furthers the general idea set by its predecessor that there is more to what listeners are hearing than just what's on top; there's the presentation on the surface, but there is also the one to be found between the layers of the mix. Here, a little digging reveals some clanking and clamor reminiscent of the very flanged guitar lines that Earl Slick also contributed to Station To Station thirty-seven years ago. As soon as listeners notice that, the epiphany inspired by “The Next Day” becomes just that much more solid and tangible; that guitar tone under the layers of “Dirty Boys” calls back to “Golden Years,” and listeners will find themselves enjoying the idea of connecting dots from throughout Bowie's career to the undercurrent of The Next Day.

…And there are a fantastic number of dots to connect – in fact, it could be contended that The Next Day actively tries to connect David Bowie's entire career. As soon as they really begin to actively look, listeners will find connections between the songs on The Next Day with others spannimg the singer's entire career. The journey and discoveries made through songs like “We Are The Dead,” “Fantastic Voyage” and “Hallo Spaceboy” (from Diamond Dogs, Lodger and Outside respectively) is completed and resolved by “Love Is Lost” and that song presents a phenomenal impression of unfocused disconnection, longing and loss. Conversely, it could easily be contended that the road from loss and confusion begun with “Space Oddity” and marked by “Time,” “Time Will Crawl” and “Thursday's Child” has reached its final destination with “Where Are We Now” and the perfectly subdued piano which drives it. Of course, the long-running images of space, isolation and insularity which have consistently reappeared in Bowie's music throughout the singer's career re-manifest on The Next Day (listeners should find “I'd Rather Be High” and “Dancing Out In Space” if they wish it find the latest installments of the stories so far) in perfectly satisfying form, but the most exciting songs in the album's run-time quickly become “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” “(You Will) Set The World On Fire,” “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” and “Heat.” In those songs, Bowie very carefully treads out onto stable but fresh ground, and the results are the true highlights of the album. There, the singer embodies the voice of trepidation on “The Stars” before getting right in their faces with “Set The World On Fire” and then downshifting into perfect intimacy with “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” and finally seeming to confide in listeners with “Heat” (check out lines like “And I tell myself I don't know who I am” and “I am a seer and I am a liar”).  Those songs exemplify David Bowie's still-sharp ability to create new and vibrant music, but they stand as monuments to workmanship in the context of The Next Day because they do not exactly fall in the same line as the other songs on the record (read: they don't look backward) but they do fit into it beautifully too. By balancing those two drives on The Next Day – by looking back for the past to inform some of these songs and also looking forward to prove that there could indeed be more on the horizon – David Bowie has managed to perfectly appease his fans; with this album, he'll have assuaged their desire for new music which has been left to ferment for the last ten years, but he'll have also titillated them into hoping that The Next Day won't be the end of the story.

“Not the end of the story?” Statement received – it'll be interesting to see what comes next.


David Bowie – The Next Day – “Where Are We Now?” – [mp3]
David Bowie – The Next Day – “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” – [mp3]

Further Reading:
Ground Control Magazine –
David Bowie – The Next Day[Album review]
Ground Control Magazine – David Bowie – The Classics: Earthling[Column]
Ground Control Magazine – David Bowie – The Classics: Aladdin Sane[Column]


The Next Day is out now on ISO/Columbia/Sony Music. Buy it here on Amazon.

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