Every damn thing I saw written in advance of his new album, The Next Day, seemed intent on making David Bowie some kind of bad-boy Dickens or Thackeray. “This recalls the schadenfreude of his Berlin period,” I read, or “hearkens back to Low, but not quite enough like Scary Monsters.” Brows lately grown scholarly furrowed, and fingers that used to raise lighters at concerts now suspended themselves over the keyboards of laptops. And agonized.
Screw all that. Fact is, the bloke can rock. Still.
As if 66 years and a tour-interrupting heart attack (in 2004) could stop The Thin White Ziggy Berlin Ultrapop Space Oddity Let’s Dancer. Yes, he was legendary for his partying. But the only thing more fascinating than Bowie’s decades of nighttime energy has been his unaggressive — but persistent — refusal to give up on the idea of the original musical idea.
It’s really not fair to take music that can stand on its own this well and compare it to what came before. Yes, I’m saying it: if you happen to be coming to Bowie for the first time, there’s something for you here. If you’re not (and no one from the Seventies is), you’re covered too.
The title track opens the album, in fifth gear right out of the garage with those wide-open, clanky chords Bowie sometimes favors: every note out for inspection, but still a tight, unified sound. But what’s been on David’s mind the past 10 years? “Here I am/Not quite dying/My body left to rot in a hollow tree/Its branches throwing shadows/On the gallows for me/And the next day/And the next/And another day…”.
O.K., so it’s a burnt umber world. Still, The Next Day doles out a different brand of heavy that makes you want more, not less. The devil’s personal horn section lures us into “Dirty Boys,” a peer-into-the-alley walk through a moist night world of sewer-grate steam and easy-access evil. The clean, engaging riff that starts “I’d Rather Be High” sets off some major-key musings on the very minor-key elements of mortality, plus some thoughts that might occur to any reasonable tight-bellied young soldier.
I’d rather be high
I’d rather be flying
I’d rather be dead
Or out of my head
Than training these guns on the men in the sand
Bowie’s voice has lost nothing to age. Whatever nasally art-pop twang he has given up from the Ziggy years is more than made up for by a rich Bourbon baritone that he can switch from rancor to richness at a sixteenth-note’s notice. He’s done enough for three artistic lifetimes, of course. Still, like the celebrities he sings about in “The Stars Are Out Tonight,” we wish he could live forever. Except we mean it.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr except album art and linked music