Album Review: David Bowie, “The Next Day”

The Next Day

“We can be heroes,” David Bowie sang almost forty years ago. The problem with being a hero, however, is that you become larger than life. You are no longer your own; you belong to everyone. And everyone has their own ideas about who and what you should be. Bowie has made a career out of demanding that his listeners approach each new project on its own terms, for better and for worse. But when you cast a shadow as long as the Thin White Duke (or Ziggy Stardust, or any of Bowie’s myriad expectation-shattering personae), maintaining your own identity in the face of public pressure must be a tough road to hoe, whatever the other perks of fame.

Keeping that in mind, I have a confession to make: I am not a giant Bowie fan. I thoroughly enjoy classic albums like Ziggy Stardust or Heroes—and his turn as the Goblin King in Labyrinth—but I do not share in the hero worship of rock & roll’s great chameleon. I don’t have the in-depth knowledge of Bowie’s back catalog necessary to situate his comeback The Next Day (2013) in its proper biographical, discographical, and hagiographical contexts. But that frees me in some ways to listen unburdened by the prejudices and preconceptions that dog more devoted listeners.

That said, it’s clear even to me, from the re-appropriated Heroes cover art to the lyrical references to Soviet-era Berlin to the revved-up call-back to “Song for Bob Dylan” that is “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” to the sci-fi bounce of “Dancing Out in Space,” that Bowie is borrowing freely from all eras of his career to create The Next Day’s sonic and thematic architecture. The only significant musical criticism I have to level is at the reverb that gets lavished all over the booming drums and the big, ringing guitars. They lend The Next Day an homogeneous, arena-ready gloss (ironically, since Bowie likely won’t tour the album), but the material would often be better served by a lighter touch.


Subject-wise, The Next Day finds Bowie preoccupied both with the nature of fame (which makes sense) and with his own mortality (which also makes sense). “Remember the dead,” he sings on “How Does the Grass Grow?” which takes its title from a bayonet drill song. “They were so great – some of them.” Likewise the penultimate track, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” whose wistful “Five Years”-like waltz is undermined by vitriolic lyrics: “I can see you as a corpse hanging from a beam…  I hope you feel so lonely you could die.”

When this fixation on the passage of time combines with Bowie’s interrogation of the nature of celebrity, some truly poignant moments arise.  From “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”:

They burn you with their radiant smiles
And trap you with their beautiful eyes
They’re broke and shamed or drunk or scared
But I hope they live forever.

Celestial imagery has been a constant throughout Bowie’s career (think “Starman” or “Space Oddity”), complicated by the dual meaning of the word “star.” Whichever meaning you choose, external brilliance masks internal turmoil. This is especially apparent on the ballad “Where Are We Now?” which may be the album’s key track. Looking back on his storied past, Bowie uses the shifts in Berlin’s physical and political geography since the late 1970s as a metaphor for the changes he and all of us have experienced in that time.

After the haunting, identity-questioning “Heat” has faded away into nothing, we are left with an appropriately contradictory album: David Bowie is clearly relishing making music again, even as the themes he addresses with that music are often exceedingly dark. The casual fan may be in for a tough listen, since Bowie is in a particularly self-referential mood this time around, and easy hooks (musical or lyrical) are few and far between. But with The Next Day, Bowie has crafted a mature (if often macabre) meditation on stardom and mortality that will reward the listener who’s willing to spend time with it.

7/10

Buy it here. Spotify it here.


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