David Bowie’s always at his best when he’s fucking with your idea of who David Bowie is. He achieves that on The Next Day by shattering the idea that he’s a 66-year-old dude making his first album in ten years. It’s no mistake that the cover features a defacing of the artwork for Heroes – this album could fit in very neatly between Heroes and Scary Monsters, with additional little teases and hints here and there which recall moments from 1.Outside, Heathen, Tin Machine II, Station To Station and Let’s Dance. But perhaps the most overt ode to the Bowie of old is You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, which sounds suspiciously like a long-lost track from the Ziggy Stardust sessions, before confirming your sense of “this sounds familiar” by ending with the lonesome drum beat from Five Years. It’s one of those cheeky intertextual moves that Bowie weaves into his catalog so easily.
Once you get over the slight “this sounds a little like something that would fit on that album” feeling, you can appreciate The Next Day on its own merits. And when you do that, you’re going to find Bowie’s most consistent album since the 70s. It’s generally a hard-rocking set (The Next Day, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), You Will Set The World On Fire), scattered with a few psychedelic detours (Valentine’s Day, I’d Rather Be High), a brief foray into Heathen-style moody balladry (the sentimental single Where Are We Now, which is in no way representative of the rest of the album) and 70s-like experimentalism (If You Can See Me, Heat). One of the biggest surprises is Dirty Boys, which comes across as part Tom Waits, part Nick Cave, part The Doors and yet all Bowie.
The guitar aspect of the album is handled by David Torn, Gerry Leonard, Earl Slick, producer Tony Visconti and Bowie himself. Torn and Leonard generally provide ethereal, moody, haunting melodies while Slick is onboard for the rock edge, but the lines frequently blur. The bass duties are shared between Gail Ann Dorsey, Visconti and King Crimson legend Tony Levin. Gail’s crisp attack and perfect tone are unmistakable, and Levin adds a roaming, virtuosic tone to tracks like Where Are We Now which, stripped of the slightly uneasy and bleak context of its video, reveals itself as a much more sentimental, gentle track than it first appears. Slick adds some great dirty rock vibe to several tracks, including Dirty Boys and the musically-sweet-but-lyrically-ominous Valentine’s Day and the stomping rocker (You Will) Set The World On Fire.
Make sure you pony up for the Deluxe Edition, which includes three further songs. I hesitate to use the term ‘extra songs’ because that implies a disunity with the rest of the material, whereas these aren’t throwaway tracks chucked in to pad out the running time: they really fit within the flow and feel of the album, and the third of these three additional tracks, I’ll Take You There, is one of the finest of the entire album, a dirty rocker beamed straight from the same universe as Diamond Dogs.
It’s too early to speculate on whether The Next Day will be Bowie’s last album – if he’ll take off again after this, or if The Next Day marks an energised return to the world of ongoing musical creation. And for now those questions just don’t matter. All that matters, all that’s real, is that with The Next Day David Bowie has made an album that sits in the upper regions of great Bowie albums.