From the album's title, The Next Day, to the (mostly) straight-forward nature of the 14 tracks that compose it, David Bowie's new album declares itself a reboot. The songs shine with ferocious life, even if they follow a simpler structure than one would expect from Bowie. Guitars by Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard strum out catchy hooks and veer off into brief solos that never overtake but merely punctuate the main attraction: the sound of Bowie's voice. Even the quieter songs on The Next Day have power and drive and truly show a man revitalized, indulging in his craft.
MIA for ten years, Bowie was written off by many as having gone underground and into quiet retirement to raise a daughter with his supermodel wife, Iman, in New York City. Meanwhile, vital peers and former collaborators like Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, and Iggy Pop kept churning out work and evolving, but where was the beloved chameleon of rock? Of course, Bowie could not stand by and not take part.
The new album bursts open with the smack of a drum and a couple of rollicking electric guitars. After the whine and screech of one guitar, Bowie sings unaffectedly and with that distinctive tenor: "Look into my eyes." Anyone familiar with Bowie's multicolored eyes knows the sly invitation makes for a brilliant first line to announce his return in a decade. To those who feared Bowie retired after his near-death experience onstage, which required emergency heart surgery, the song explodes further during a chorus where Bowie snarls, "Here I am, not quite dying/My body left to rot in a hollow tree/Its branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me/And the next day, and the next day."
From the repurposed Heroes album cover to statements in the opening song as noted above, Bowie makes sure this is not just a return from a long hiatus but a resurrection of sorts. I have not noticed so many verse-chorus-verse moments with brief pauses for guitar solos on a single Bowie album since 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Bowie knows this. "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" features several guitar parts and a soaring string section and a martial drumbeat that slyly becomes the intro to Ziggy's opening track, "Five Years."
"Valentine's Day" could have been one of the bright songs Bowie composed in his mod-influenced era when he began singing in London mod groups in the mid-1960s. Slick, a Bowie collaborator since 1974's Diamond Dogs, gives "Valentine's Day" an active lead guitar that weaves through its verse-chorus-verse structure with no shame. Bowie is not as interested in trying to reinvent himself with these songs as much as indulge in his craft of traditional pop rock. Besides some string arrangements and a baritone sax, the main instruments on The Next Day are guitars, bass, and drums.
Still, Bowie cannot help but explore some self-referencing, as he repurposes the past toward transformation or evolution, something he built his career on. The wistful "Where Are We Now?" is full of lyrical moments alluding to his past, when he recorded Heroes in 1977 Berlin. His voice sounds tired and old for the first half, but the man trumps nostalgia halfway through for a soaring guitar moment, as he sings in adulation of the elements: "as long as there's rain... as long as there's fire."
Guitarist Robert Fripp played a key role in cowriting the title track of Heroes, considered by many as Bowie's greatest moment in songwriting and performance. A truly Frippian instance on The Next Day appears toward the end of the album, bookending "How Does the Grass Grow?" Layers of guitar whine, pulse, and undulate using unmistakable Frippertronics. In between, however, the song flows along with an odd, terse, breathless delivery by Bowie, pausing for a whiny chorus of ya, ya, yas. Supposedly this is a moment from the Shadow's "Apache," but Bowie has twisted it up so bizarrely, hidden in the ya-ya chorus, I doubt many would have recognized it.
Two other songs stand out as some of the stranger detours from traditional song structures for Bowie. Both "If You Can See Me" and the album's closer, "Heat," sound like outtakes from one of Bowie's most experimental albums of the 1990s: 1. Outside (1995). "If You Can See Me" opens on a skittering beat and a soaring howl by vocalist/bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, who started collaborating with Bowie on that album 1995 album. Synthesized strings tuned so high that they sound like percussion instruments pulse along as Bowie's voice is coated in a modulating effect that recalls "All the Madmen" or "The Bewlay Brothers," or -- dare I say -- "The Laughing Gnome." With its ominous, angular quality, this may be the album's most daring tune as far as song structure.
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"Heat" features an extended opening of throbbing, humming instruments. They seem to swell and tease one another into a proper song, as if trapped in some primordial ooze. It's as if the song's title has melted its music. Bowie sings big yet softly of "the songs of dust." The chorus dwells on the perpetual Bowie struggle of identity encapsulated in the line "And I tell myself, I don't know who I am/And I tell myself, I don't know who I am," to which he responds to himself: "My father ran the prison/My father ran the prison." It's as much a song about beginning as it is about accepting a rut. That rut is Bowie's shadow and his many previous albums that will forever be considered immortal in defining rock history.
"Heat" offers a low-key but profound closer as good as the terrific tracks that capped off Bowie's last two albums, Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003). All that's missing from this track is the piano of Bowie's longest-ever collaborator, Mike Garson. Still, "Heat" remains a beautiful, moody moment capturing unfinished business and looking forward to hopefully more work.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @indieethos.