The first surprise was pretty unbeatable. Having been absent from the Olympic Ceremony, absent from his own retrospective at the V&A, and most importantly, absent from the album charts for ten long years, David Bowie broke cover at the start of the year by suddenly releasing the heartbreaking ballad ‘Where Are We Now?’.
Are you ready for the next surprise? It might just be the weakest song on the album.
‘The Next Day’ is a very brilliant rock record. It’s intelligent, memorable and even a little provocative. Given the dearth of true talent working in the medium of rock at present, there’s every chance you’ll hear your favourite guitar solo of the year on this LP – not to mention the deepest lyrics, the best chord changes or the most catchy choruses (more on those in a minute). That His Davidness can trounce the meagre competition around him in 2013 is no surprise. He’s buried his imitators in every decade he’s worked in, from Slade to Suede. The crucial thing though is that ‘The Next Day’ stands proud when judged against his own exceptional back catalogue. This one fact alone makes it a five-star album – an album that’s sincerely deserving of your attention.
From the single drum tap that introduces the opening title-track, Bowie sounds alive and vigorous as he chants over a jerky, early-Talking Heads rhythm: ‘Here I am, not quite dying’. It’s true, contrary to speculation. He’s thankfully not wrapped up in the trappings of his own nostalgia either – as the Berlin recollections of ‘Where Are We Now?’ previously hinted. At 66, Bowie is somehow still able to break new ground in a career that’s seen him casually cruise past just about every boundary imaginable. An excellent example here is ‘If You Can See Me’ – an expansive, acid-rock call to the gods, comparable to The Who’s ‘I Can See for Miles’ if performed by NYC experimental group Battles. ‘How Does The Grass Grow’ is another first – with David oddly yet knowingly ‘la la-ing’ the melody of The Shadows’ 1960 hit ‘Apache’ as part of the chorus.
Not that the master needs help writing choruses. If there’s one thing above all that grabs you during these fourteen songs, it’s that Bowie’s one of the few people left in music who can craft a chorus the way Fabergé craft eggs. While so much modern songwriting is content to ride one static and unchanging loop (sometimes well, often not), Bowie’s return reminds us that great pop songs are actually meant to go somewhere. His flare for composition is all over the sleazy, sax-ridden ‘Dirty Boys’, on the Morrissey-esque second single ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)‘ and on the scorching ‘(You Will) Set the World on Fire’ – which begins with a raw White Stripes-alike guitar riff before easing elegantly into the kind of hell-for-leather choruses Lindsey Buckingham wrote for Fleetwood Mac circa ‘Rumours’.
While Bowie caused the world to stand still after unveiling ‘Where Are They Now?’ on a random day in January, it’s possible ‘Valentine’s Day’ would have knocked the planet clean off its axis had it been dropped unannounced on February 14th. A perfect glam ballad, and a worthy companion to Aladdin Sane’s ‘The Prettiest Star’ and ‘Drive-In Saturday’, it’s simply one of the most affecting and warm rock songs heard in years – even if producer Tony Visconti thinks it’s about a murderous boy. The fact that he doesn’t know for sure speaks volumes about the lyrical vagueness at work here, but rest assured, repeat listening will be handsomely rewarded.
Elsewhere, ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’ may be the best imitation of Ziggy Stardust’s ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’ we’ve heard since LCD Soundsystem’s ‘New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’, while the album’s closer, ‘Heat’, follows Scott Walker into his recent obsession with industrial noir – with Bowie lowering his tone to a suitably deep baritone in the process.
Should we be surprised that David Bowie’s made an excellent album? In hindsight, probably not. We just weren’t expecting quite such a rich return from our absentee hero. ‘The Next Day’ is a treasure.
Terrible cover art though. It’s just TextEdit for God’s sake. Oliver Keens
Pre-order ‘The Next Day‘ now.
Watch the video for new single ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ below:
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