That David Bowie, he’s just full of surprises. First came the surprise announcement of a new album, The Next Day, his first in 10 years. Then came the “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” music video, which made everyone realize Bowie and Tilda Swinton are not, I repeat, are not the same person. And lastly, yesterday evening, with little-to-no notice, The Next Day was made available on iTunes. And it’s REALLY good.
I’ve listened to it four times, and took down notes with each go-around (“Note to self: needs more babies and weird puppets”). Here are a few next-day evaluations about The Next Day, Bowie’s best album in decades.
#1. I’m not kidding — it’s good
The headline of the post is slightly misleading. It’s been 30 years since Bowie’s last good album, so even if The Next Day was only mediocre (it’s not), it’d be better than, sigh, the cover-drenched Tonight, 1987’s misleading Never Let Me Down, or his last album before this one, the embarrassingly youthful Reality. One of The Next Day’s greatest strengths is that it sounds like it was made by a 66-year-old man, but the coolest 66-year-old man out there. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel or dabble in instantly dated genres, like much of Bowie’s ‘90s albums did (still trying to make sense of the listless electronica of Black Tie, White Noise) — thanks to the presence of Tony Visconti, who produced the famed Berlin Trilogy, as well as Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World, among other stone-cold classics, Bowie realized he needed to steal from himself to sound his freshest in decades.
#2. Hunky Low
That could use elaboration. Imagine the sprightly vocals from Hunky Dory placed on top of the industrial, start-stop music of Low, with a smidge of the guitar stabs of the ridiculously underrated Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), but made a little more “handsome,” and voilà, you’ve got The Next Day. This is meant as a compliment.
#3. But not really, really good
The Next Day occasionally suffers from two problems: 1) it’s a bit long; 53 minutes doesn’t sound overly lengthy, but the album gets bogged down by, 2) mid-tempo ballads. Bowie’s otherwise still-strong, elastic voice sounds at its thinnest when the album slows down, and perhaps because it’s being streamed as one track on iTunes, songs tend to blend together. (This problem may be solved when the physical copy is available on March 12th.) What’s missing is an absolute masterpiece; there’s no “Heroes” or basically ever song on Aladdin Sane — there are some highlights, like the bluesy “Dirty Boys” and hooky “Dancing Out in Space,” but no showstoppers. A minor quibble, though.
#4. The saxophone sounds killer
Yeah, like that.
#5. Bowie’s obsessed with mortality
The Next Day begins with, “Here I am, not quite dying,” and concludes, “And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am.” Bowie has always been an excellent cryptic storyteller, but, as happens with a (technically) senior citizen who suffered a tour-ending heart attack in 2004, he’s made his often-violent songs specifically about himself, about his mortality (“Just remember duckies/Everybody gets old”) and the way he’s perceived by the general public, to say nothing of that fantastic album cover, with a simple Text Edit block placed over Bowie’s Heroes face. The future is on his mind, but so is the past, and luckily, Bowie’s handpicked only his strongest attributes, and left the Fisher Price orchestra ballads behind; you get the feeling that after The Next Day, Bowie has nothing left to offer, musically speaking. It’s all right here, on the album, everything that makes him DAVID MOTHERF*CKING BOWIE, an entire career summed up in less than a hour. It’s going to take some to parse through the references, but that won’t be a chore — The Next Day is going to be on constant rotation throughout the year.