David Bowie - The Next Day
Words: Ryan Waring
No work of art exists in a vacuum. As much as I like to think or wish that the fabric of one album makes it inherently better than another, such a simple metric grossly undervalues just how much of that hallowed “classic” status hangs on the culture’s response. An artist who has full rein mastering how his music sounds on headphones, still has little to no say as to whichever of a dozen or so rock ’n’ roll narratives the culture at large will ultimately assign it. We’ll eulogize a record that unfortunately emerged just ahead of the wave and euphemize another that lags slightly behind the times. Some rocks may make better skipping stones than others, but all rocks, polished or craggy, will only fly as far as the lake water allows.
No one knows the authority that cultural narratives hold over rock ’n’ roll better than David Bowie, whose career has fit just about every mold in the business at one point or another. He caught a lucky break to launch his career when he rush-released a gimmicky single to coincide with the moon landing. He latched an androgynous alien persona onto a fast-burning sci-fi glam craze, and he dropped the act when its sun began to set as quickly as it had risen. He boarded the Soul Train and debarked just before all that cocaine damn near killed him. He skipped to Europe, where he, producer Tony Visconti, and contemporary Brian Eno forged soundscape hallmarks that only posterity would view favorably, either from cues by the myriad imitators or by critical revision as capturing the zeitgeist of Cold War tension. He produced an underappreciated gem during the New Romantic movement’s early incubation, but swiftly traded in his Pierrot costume for red shoes to scale the MTV cash cow, and everything else he’s released since is a desperate, contrived, reactionary take from an old man who doesn’t know when to quit, or so the rock gods have apparently decreed. Even an artist as prolific and innovative as David Bowie doesn’t have the liberty to write his own epitaph.
But it’s been ten years since we received a dose of Reality. A backstage heart attack and reclusive lifestyle have left Bowie’s audience deservedly weaned and starved of the legend whose persistent geriatric back catalog they were starting to take for granted. It’s into a hungry and nostalgic climate that the shrewd Bowie has decided to experience the one rock narrative he hasn’t yet fulfilled. You know what it is. It’s the “return to form;” that, “He’s still got it!” chapter of a rock star’s bio that usually only ever surfaces in the “what could have been” laments of fan fiction prologues because so few talents ever last long enough to try for it. And if the myth has set long enough for the qualities that molded it to become distant memories, we’re usually far too hasty and munificent in granting it. And David Bowie, of all artists, knows how this works.
That’s not to say The Next Day isn’t deserving of its unanimous critical acclaim. It’s a good album. But holy God is the rhetoric around it insufferably effusive. It’s definitely not definitely the best release since Scary Monsters, but it might be. Maybe it has tracks that wouldn’t feel out of place on Young Americans, as is wantonly deemed, but they’re not on Young Americans, because Young Americans was released almost 40 years ago, and these tracks were written and recorded in the last couple years. And, yeah, it evokes the Berlin triptych, but that’s not to testify that it competes with that trilogy’s sonic ingenuity. Can’t we evaluate an album for what it is and not of that which it reminds us?
But the retrospection isn’t exactly all amiss either; it’s the reaction Bowie deliberately manicured, and maybe more effectively than any of his culturally-conscious acts ever have. And that’s because The Next Day is on-point as one of rock’s most post-modern performer’s most meta work to date. Here the predominant text on which he builds isn’t an Evelyn Waugh short story, or Friedrich Nietzsche theory, or even a stage play only previously performed in his imagination, but David Bowie’s physical discography itself. That much is plain from the ugly, but cunningly self-referential album cover, on which he’s sloppily debased the classic Heroes cover with a plain white text box, as if he’s given up the hope that a new album this late in the game could possibly offer him a blank slate. You’re always going to view what he does in relation to what he’s done, as supported by every review of The Next Day you’ll come across.
The cover isn’t the only patently deliberate allusion to albums past. There are tongue-in-cheek samples all over the record: a subtle bass fill on the titular leadoff track, lifted straight from “Rebel Rebel;” a snare to open “Love Is Lost,” pitched down to match the sonic calling card of Low; and the drum shuffle to close the epic “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” an exact replica of that which kicks off “Five Years,” and by extension, his reputed magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; just to name a few. The Next Day is a consciously crafted, audible edition of a “Hidden Pictures” puzzle, because Bowie knows that’s the game everyone is going to play anyway.
And it makes for an excellent red herring to frame the album he wants to craft, but that which the people might not want to hear. While the sentimental fans are combing to spot the references to his 70s, Bowie picks up the themes and arrangements not unlike those dominating the last few albums that our rock discourse has labeled “wearied” or “insipid.” Albeit, with a newfound lens inspired by medieval literature, the lyrics on The Next Day tackle a lot of the same war (“How Does Your Grass Grow”), drug (“I’d Rather Be High”), and death (take your pick here) imagery that was there on 2003’s Reality, as it was on 2002’s Heathen, as it more or less always has been.
Likewise, don’t let a pitched-down snare or trembling, ambient bass lead you to believe The Next Day hews closer to Low than anything since. Far from. Bowie reunites with Tony Visconti, the producer who had a hand in the bellwether atmospherics of the Berlin Trilogy, but Visconti was also there for Heathen and Reality, and much in the same vein as those outputs, The Next Day is conventional AOR. The record boasts nothing groundbreaking, nothing more than radio-refined pop, but also nothing unlistenable.
It’ll be praised as such, because the narrative asks that it be, but The Next Day isn’t Bowie’s “return to form.” Rather, The Next Day is Bowie fooling the world into thinking he’s back, when in reality he never left.
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