Is this the best Bowie album in more than 30 years? Yes, uh, maybe. To say Next Day is incredibly listenable might sound like a lukewarm critique just this side of a slag but it’s not. It is a testament to Bowie’s 40-odd year staying power. The album opens with Bowie’s strongest opener since well, uh, Scary Monsters and then goes on to hit the listener with quite a few immediately hummable Bowiesque beauties.
How can a 65-year-old man make music that sounds so immediate and fresh with an imprint of alienation throughout the entire record? Granted there are a few missteps on the album but overall this album actually eclipses the bulk of Station to Station (more on that later) and Young Americans (discounting Fame and the title track from that piece of Philly soul).
This album is better than Young Americans?! What?! To be honest, Young Americans was an uneven piece of cocaine soul, which included a sad uninspired cover of Across the Universe. Dust it off. Listen to it. Is it as great as you remember? Lets not forget this was around the period when Bowie would tell anyone who would listen that one of his biggest influences was Anthony Newley. What kind of fool am I indeed!
Fortunately for Bowie (and for us), midway through the recording of Station to Station, he ditched the Philly soul obsession and immersed himself in Krautrock becoming less and less interested in chart success, which was key in making his follow-up Low a brilliant record. Of course, at the time, his label RCA looked upon Low as a dismal failure and not as the groundbreaking future of music that it was.
However, finding a high-water mark on the Next Day is difficult. But really, is that Bowie’s fault? He is this monolithic hologram of what we saw the future to be. We made his aura bigger and better than everyone, so now even he cannot outdo himself, ever. We have had over thirty years to let his gems from the past incubate in our souls. When these eggs were hatching, most of us were teens and pre-teens. How can now compete with then?
Lets imagine the Next Day coming out after Scary Monsters. Tony Visconti saves the day. Earl Slick provides the guitar (on some songs that is). But over 30 years has passed since the release of Scary Monsters. Do we need to mention what has occurred since Scary Monsters? – Debacles and money grabs such as the Dancing in the Streets duet with bed buddy Mick Jagger, the Glass Spider bad hair period, Labyrinth.
The title track kicks off this record aggressive and alienated, showcasing the Bowie I have loved since my 12 year old brain was perplexed and wowed by Future Legend (after a steady diet of Donny Osmond, Melanie and ‘I wanna Hold your hand’); the Bowie that came wailing through the speakers on Beauty and the Beast; that caught us off guard with the strange wonderful build on Station to Station; that caught us off guard again one album later with the futuristic off-kilter instrumental Speed of Life.
His songs; like TVC15, Always Crashing in the Same Car, Rebel Rebel, Watch that Man; were at times a map of the future for us. We knew that someday that would be us. Or we hoped some day that would be us. Or we were scared that some day that would be us. Some years later Bowie hinted in interviews that Always Crashing in the Same Car is possibly a true story about a drug deal gone awry. This adds to the song’s authenticity of trapped desperation, especially for those of us who may or may not have taken the drug path.
However, the Bowie of late, who shops for organic-farm-to-table foods at farmers’ markets in Upstate New York with supermodel wife Iman, is no longer the Man Who Fell to Earth but a card carrying member of the Yacht Club. A onetime space alien – who went to sleep and woke up to discover that he is the most popular kid in school – must find it difficult to write songs about alienation and otherness. The Heat, the album’s closer, is possibly a reference to this.
If You Can See Me, with the help of Tony Levin’s off kilter bass, melds vintage Bowie with Peter Gabriel / King Crimson late 70s art rock driving recklessly head on into Robert Fripp’s Exposure. That is not a bad album to have a smash up into. Is he just regurgitating those who followed him?
Whereas in the 90s, Bowie took from what he gave to million sellers, notably Nine Inch Nails. In 1980, he covered great white hope Tom Verlaine on Scary Monsters. Let’s not mention what he borrowed from what had been borrowed from him later in the 80s or we will all breakdown and go into a Howard Jones stupor.
Fortunately, now he is mining what he gave to today’s stars. With that being said, Valentine’s Day is a wonderful Arcade Fire song. Maybe the lesson here is to keep him away from the Philly soul of the 70s and anything that remotely has to do with the 80s and instead feed him a steady diet of Krautrock, New York no wave and new wave and anything current that does not induce vomiting.
Speaking of vomiting, is this all a regurgitation of what has happened before? Is music just a form of constant regurgitation? Is regurgitation a form of music? Ask Throbbing Gristle that question.
When judging an album by Bowie who will forever be the aforementioned monolith, how is it even possible to be fair? Again, Scary Monsters rears its supercreep head with songs such as The Stars (Are Out Tonight) and How Does the Grass Grow (with its familiar refrain. Can you name the allusion?). Honestly, I will take either of these over the heavy handedness of Scream Like a Baby. Hell, I prefer these to Fashion.
Yes, there is a strong possibility that this album is his best since Scary Monsters and who knows maybe it is even better. As I mentioned earlier, it may even be on par with Station to Station, which is blasphemy to some. Really? Is it as good as Station to Station? How can I even say that it is as good? Let me qualify that statement. Standout tracks on Station to Station are flawless and those tracks are the title track, TVC15 and Golden Years. The rest is filler. Nuff said.
So you say, if I am not a fan of Station to Station’s Wild is the Wind, I am not a true Bowie fan. This is the deal, if I had to pick one desert island artist it would without a doubt, or a second thought, be Bowie. Yet, I have not bought an album of Bowie’s since Outside. Actually, I stopped buying his albums as soon as they came out after Tonight made me physically ill. But what does all of that have to do with this?
Again, this is the deal. Bowie has made a fine album, an album that seems to be more in tune with the times than lots of people half his age. But what does age have to do with this? He is not the same alienated cocaine fueled 1975 supernova that was on the brink of total annihilation, riding in the back of a limousine drinking milk and talking about how his life is like the fly trapped in said milk. At that point, in the documentary Cracked Actor, he goes on to reveal his full paranoia of the world around him.
With that sort of attitude and cocaine fuel, how could he not make the best albums about alienation and paranoia ever recorded? Even more important though, how is he even still alive? In a way, he is Michael Jackson’s opposite. The more famous Jackson became the more hunted and bizarre he became. The more famous Bowie has become the less hunted and more ordinary he is.
In the end, what saves this album is there are some truly great moments. Nevertheless, this album does have flaws. The biggest flaw is that it will be held up in comparison to other Bowie records, the cocaine fueled masterstrokes. Will I listen to this over Diamond Dogs or Heroes or Lodger or Low? Probably not, but there is a really good chance that I will listen to this more often than PinUps or Young Americans or those albums by the pesky Bowie imitators past and present. Scissor Sisters. ABC. Thomas Dolby. Simple Minds. The Killers. Toby Keith. (Okay, I’m kidding about Toby Keith.)
(Review by: Tyson Meade)