Friday, March 29, 2013

9 Random Thoughts I Had The Day After My First 7 Days of Listening to David Bowie's "The Next Day"

1. Considering how long I waited for the gift of new music from David Bowie (10 years, like everybody else), I'm not completely sure why it took me two weeks to finally unwrap the musical contents of The Next Day, which was officially released on March 8 in Australia (and four days later in the U.S.). Perhaps I was wary of being disappointed by an opus so long awaited that I had built up unreasonable expectations, and I wanted to let some of the hoopla surrounding it die down, so I waited until it sold 85,000 copies in its first week of release in the U.S., immediately becoming Bowie's highest-charting album ever there (at No. 2, behind Bon Jovi's What About Now, an album I didn't even know had been released on the same day until the band performed on American Idol on March 14). Since debuting in the runner-up spot one week ago, The Next Day has dominated my personal playlist, and I don't expect it to make room for much else at least until the Easter Bunny hops out of our lives once more.

2. I concur with the rapturous reviews that have greeted The Next Day. It's tight and concise (two things that put it in stark contrast to Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience, 2013's other major release so far), an incredibly easy and engrossing listen. "Where Are We Now?," the album's elegiac first single, had me expecting a far more somber and difficult record, which makes the accessibility of The Next Day such a pleasant surprise. I wonder how we all would have reacted to it had it come out in 2005, two years after Bowie's previous album, Reality. Would we have regarded it as just another impressive release in a third-act album cycle (in my mind, 1999's Hours..., 2002's Heathen and 2003's Reality sometimes blend into one) instead of a stand-alone near-masterpiece and musical double whammy, a career renaissance and capper in one?

3. Context is everything with The Next Day. You can't listen to it and not think about Bowie's brush with mortality in 2004 (a post-concert heart attack followed by surgery to clear an acutely blocked artery), that he's been on sabbatical from recording for such a long time, or that most of us thought we'd never again hear new music from him. Bowie's voice has taken on an age-appropriate weary knowingness, which lends The Next Day a certain stately quality. The title track kicks off the album on a swinging upbeat note -- and for the most part, The Next Day stays in that aural realm -- but there's a distinct melancholy there as well as a sense of urgency, perhaps because given Bowie's age (66), his decade-ago health crisis, and the fact that it took us so long to get here, we're more aware than ever that for Bowie, and for all of us indeed, The Next Day could very well be the last one.

4. The fact that Bowie has been pretty much off the radar during The Next Day's entire promotional campaign (no big interviews, no Idol gig, no sit downs with Oprah or Ellen) keeps the album fresher longer. Not having had to read article after article in which he dissected the songs or his state of mind while he was writing and recording them gives the project a darker, mysterious edge, enhancing the tension and the spark of the jittery "Love Is Lost," shading a fairly straightforward rocker like "Valentine's Day" with layers of ambiguity, and compounding the abstract mystique of "Where Are We Now?" and the funereal album-closing "Heat."

5. Of all Bowie's previous albums, The Next Day might be closer in spirit to 1993's Black Tie White Noise, which, interestingly, was his last album to hit No. 1 in the UK before The Next Day debuted there. Like Black Tie White Noise, The Next Day belongs to no specific Bowie period. It's like a lone island off to the side, facing a cluster of archipelagos. There are hints of '70s Bowie classicism without that era's grand groundbreaking, the sturdy pop songcraft of '80s Bowie, a dash of the adventurous spirit that was re-ignited on mid-'90s albums like Outside and Earthling without any of that period's overt experimentation. "Where Are We Now?" recalls his late '80s work with Tin Machine -- which Bowie once told me was the first album on which he returned to making music for the love of the game after nearly a decade of doing it for the money -- but between 1967 (the year he released his eponymous debut) and 2003, he couldn't have delivered lines like "Here I am, not quite dying/My body left to rot in a hollow tree" (on "The Next Day") and "When the sun goes down and the die is cast" (on "Dirty Boys") and packed them so full of subtext by merely singing them.

6. The considerable contribution of producer Tony Visconti to the Bowie oeuvre should never be overlooked or underplayed, though it often has been. He produced many of Bowie's greatest works -- including his late-'70s Berlin trilogy but not his '80s commercial triumphs, nor his mid-'90s forays into electronica and drum 'n' bass -- and The Next Day is the sound of two old cohorts with nothing left to prove, giving them the confidence and creative license to make an almost defiantly commercial and unpretentious David Bowie album. When I'm done obsessing over The Next Day, I'm going to revisit T. Rex's Electric Warrior and Morrissey's Ringleader of the Tormentors, both Visconti-produced and brilliant because of it.

7. "The Stars Are Out Tonight," the album's second single which comes complete with a "hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo" vocal refrain (later, he "ya ya ya ya's" on "How Does the Grass Grow?"!), touches on the symbiotic relationship between celebrity and fandom while name-dropping Brigitte (Bardot?), Jack (Nicholson?), Kate (Middleton?) and Brad (Pitt?). Bowie sings it with the urgency and awe of the truly starstruck while twinkling as brightly as anything in that celebrity galaxy he's describing. He's one of them and one of us.

8. Three mid-album songs, in particular, reassert Bowie's musical force of nature and establishes his contemporary cachet. "If You Can See Me" with its assault of guitars, foreboding bass line and percussion that sounds like it's tripping over itself (an echo of the drum 'n' bass experimentation that was Earthling), revisits 1997 without abandoning 2013. Bowie, all frantic hysteria, can still rock. On the horn-tinged "Boss of Me," the most conventionally pop song on The Next Day, he proves that approaching 70, he can still be sexy as hell, and on "Dancing Out in Space" he's still got the moves, too, even if those red shoes were retired ages ago. I'd love to see what a contemporary remixer (paging Calvin Harris -- or better yet, Stuart Price, aka "Thin White Duke," too!) would do with that one.

9. Tony Visconti has said that 29 tracks were recorded for The Next Day, and some of them may end up on a follow-up album. If the Deluxe-edition bonus tracks "So She" and "Plan" -- moodier and more esoteric than the proper album and both under three minutes long -- are any indication of what might be to come, the day after The Next Day should be a very good one indeed.
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