Bowie is as good a cultural barometer as we’ve got. His endless permutations have been driven from without as much as within, from his realisation that the moon landing made space the only subject to write about in ‘69, to prefiguring punk and post punk with Iggy and Eno in the 70s, to heading down the disco with Niles Rodgers a few years later; time and again Bowie has shown us where the smart money is. In this light, his 90s experiments with drum & bass look less foolhardy – it was the vital sound of the time, and his only mistake was trying to shoehorn songs onto a music utterly resistant to traditional song structure.
Conversely, his Noughties flirtations with abrasive electronica have stood up remarkably well – but now, any laptop aided glitches have been all but jettisoned on The Next Day. You can’t help but wonder what it says of our current cultural climate that this is the most conservative album Bowie has made for some time. Other than a certain pro-tools sheen, and the militant breakbeats found on midpoint number If You Can See Me, this record could have come out anytime from 1972 to 2014. This will undoubtedly please those pundits who belligerently stick to the hoary claim that everything Bowie recorded post 1984 is crap. The Next Day is his return to writing ‘straight’ songs for guitar, piano and orchestra. References to his past abound. The albums cover itself is a hacked rendition of the Heroes sleeve, whilst he manages to conflate two eras into one on Dancing Out In Space – nicking the title, and Motown thump from Dancing in the Street, and sending them off to Mars to hang out with Ziggy. Elsewhere he lifts a melody line from The Shadows Apache pretty much note for note, singing it boisterously on the chorus of How Does Your Grass Grow. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suggest that maybe this liberal appropriation of motifs is the zeitgeist The Next Day represents – we live in a Youtube archived world where cultural artifacts are pillaged at whim, and Bowie’s getting stuck in with the best of ‘em.
All this would be meaningless if The Next Day didn’t give up the goods. Luckily, there are a number of moments on the album of pure Bowie gold. Three tracks in, and The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is a vicious spearing of celebrity culture set to a New Wave bassline. “They watch us from behind their shades // Brigitte, Jack, and Kate, and Brad…” Bowie sings, rendering them somewhere between gargoyles and Pagan Gods, “They burn you with their radiant smiles// Trap you with their beautiful eyes// They’re broke and shamed or drunk or scared// But I hope they live forever.”
Further on, Valentine’s Day is vintage stuff, with a twanging guitar that’s part melancholy and part Britpop chug, as Bowie’s unique sing-song delivery narrates an oblique tale that may or may not be about a high school shooting. It’s got that unquantifiable magic that makes a Bowie composition special, a dreamy, blasted atmosphere, triumphant and desolate. This atmosphere resurfaces in the final two tracks. Penultimate song, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is the kind of thrilling melodrama that Bowie does best, rising orchestral strings accompanying a strange tale of obsession and hate, concluding with a strident “I hope you feel so lonely you could die.” When this collapses into closer Heat, a sprawling tale of madness and identity, Bowie leaves us with the lines “I am the seer, but I am a liar” – and it’s as good a summation of his fascinating career as you could hope for.
Ignoring the occasional mis-steps (and which Bowie record doesn’t have those…), The Next Day is something of a triumph, the sound of Bowie confortably showing his skills as a songwriter first and foremost. Sure, it may not be his most ‘game-changing’ record, but in compensation, it’s the most immedietely enjoyable thing he’s put together for years.