The next chapter of Bowie's career as challenging as the rest
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
There are so many leaping points built-in to David Bowie’s new album, The Next Day, that it’s easy to imagine writers slamming their heads on the keyboard and churning out one cliché and then the next, ad infinitum.
The cover obscures Bowie’s classic record “Heroes.” The first song, “The Next Day,” finds Bowie exclaiming, “Here I am, not quite dying,” creating a classic “Bowie’s back” reference point if there ever was one. Even the title, The Next Day, glows with opportunities to rave or rant about this phase in the musician’s journey.
But potentially lost in all that is the simple fact that a veteran artist with an overwhelming history has stepped back into the music spotlight with such presence and authority, which would not have been possible had The Next Day not been such a cohesive, important work. The sound here is of an artist with something to say and determined to say it as it hasn’t yet been expressed.
As with most Bowie projects, even with that focus on originality, there are callbacks to be found throughout. The tenor of the title track surprisingly calls back to his early 1970s work in rhythm and tempo, with a little ’90s edge on the instrumentation. But all that is a reference-heavy way to say that Bowie’s songwriting sense is as sharp and edgy as it has ever been; no small feat in 2013, a testament to how well this record works and feels, and it’s all set in motion by an energetic opener.
This isn’t a nostalgia project as much as it is a fusing of Bowie’s best elements in the present day. With longtime producer Tony Visconti back behind the board, the hints of R&B meeting industrial production are scattered throughout the record, melding with Bowie’s unique vision and sense of composition. The Next Day can be funky and scattered, as on “Dirty Boys,” it locks into a groove on “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” and it turns sweeping and grand on “Where Are We Now?”
That track, especially, plays like the great ballads of the pre-rock and roll era, its age only given away by some modern production techniques. It’s soul is rooted in the most basic elements of songwriting, but it’s given weight in Bowie’s touch and sense of direction. In one song, it encapsulates what’s always been so great about his music, the best of which takes what is so familiar as to be ingrained and casts it back with a sideways glance, changing it just enough to be so interesting and different as to be remarkable.
It would be easy to simply fill the space and start listing how more songs pull this trick. “Heat” is the epic album closer. “Boss of Me” is the midtempo, unapologetic rocker. “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” is the high-charged anthem. And so on. But that’s not as interesting as listening over and over, and realizing how each of these songs could fit nicely into these pre-prescribed genre compartments but truly do flow beyond them. They could all belong to a different time or place, but they don’t. Together, they’re simply Bowie, as if anything could be so categorically simple.
In a career built on left turns, merely stepping back into the spotlight with new music would have been a decision bold enough for most fans. But “just enough” has never been Bowie’s realm. He wasn’t about to put his name back out there on a new record and slink away. He had to experiment and introduce new sounds.
The results are apparent enough, even on the first listen. Repeated plays reveal the depth and the effort that went into this record, each one filled with enough little nuggets to help it live past its inevitable placement on a score of “best of 2013” lists and carry on within the ears for years.
And there’s no reason why this has to be the end of Bowie’s recording career. This album doesn’t necessarily show a musician at the end, but one still bursting with creativity. It’s a tremendous reintroduction into the music world, and it’s still only the next chapter.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com