Before we begin, let’s just clear up one teensy tiny, teeny weeny, minute little niggle that makes me want to inflict physical harm. His name is David Bowie, pronounced like ‘bowtie’. I cannot abide people who refer to him as David Bowie, as in ‘bow to the queen’. You’re incorrect, you’re wrong, that is not his name, please stop doing it.
Now then. Way back in November, the media became a bit over-excited at a long-awaited ‘public appearance’ by David Bowie. Said ‘public appearance’ actually turned out to be a pop to the shops to purchase a spot of lunch, and induced my pal over at Tune Waffle to have a bit of a rant about the many reasons why David Bowie shouldn’t come out of retirement. At the time I agreed with him wholeheartedly, but that was of course a darker time when it seemed extremely unlikely that David would be releasing any new material at any point in the somewhat-near future, if at all. Then, lo and behold! O frabjous day! On January 8th, David’s 66th birthday, the world awoke to the news that he was releasing a brand spanking new album, full of brand spanking new material, which he’d been secretly working on for up to two years and, most astonishingly, no one knew! I generally hate feeling like I’m out of the loop on these things, but it didn’t matter, because so was everyone else. It was like Christmas arriving all over again, only more exciting because I generally don’t like Christmas.
I can still remember it all vividly. I had the day off work, so I was enjoying a nice lie-in and dozing to the radio, when I vaguely heard mention of a surprise new David Bowie album. Obviously I dismissed it as a dream I had while dozing, because everyone knows that David’s been retired for around ten years now, and of course he’s not bringing a new album out, don’t be silly. When I properly woke up a bit later on I half-remembered and had a little chortle to myself, and then the hour rolled around again and the news came on the radio, and good golly but it was true! I very excitedly flung myself out of bed and headed for the nearest computer, all the while texting my mum and my pal over at Tune Waffle, and frantically waited for the new video to load, which naturally took quite a while as everyone else was doing the same thing. In a similar video-buffering-suspense-building manner, I’ll come on to the tunes themselves in a minute, but let’s first just take a brief moment to consider the album in its physicality.
Let’s face it, the artwork is a bit of a disappointment. It’s the cover of Bowie’s Heroes album with a white square obscuring the picture. Similarly, the back is another white square with the track listings stuck on top of the original track listings for Heroes. Apparently it’s all deeply symbolic and is to do with trying to obliterate the past, but to be honest it kind of just smacks of laziness to me. It’s almost like they spent two years focusing on secret songwriting and then suddenly thought “oh shit, we forgot the album cover!” the day before it was released. Saying it’s full of symbolism is a rather clever way of getting round it, because people will ooh and aah over it and proclaim that it’s ‘deep’, but I think we can all tell that the cover wasn’t exactly top of the to-do list.
But on to more important matters, the music itself. It’s all typically Bowie in that there’s lots of funky melodies filled with strange and yet poetic lyrics. The first single, Where Are We Now? was picked for release first because of its introspective nature and the idea that it’d be a nice, reflective way to ease people into new Bowie music. I really like it, it’s a bit understated which means the whole focus is on David’s lovely melodic singing rather than busy instrumentals or the like. I’m especially fond of the nice military-sounding drumming during the “As long as there’s rain” etc. section (which is especially nice to wail and play along to if you happen to have a trusty purple ukulele, as I do). It’s a bit sombre, but I think more reminiscent than depressing, although someone has tried their hardest to convince me that the lyrics and general sound of the song are all indications that David’s dying of a terminal illness. Naturally I’ve tried to ignore such a suggestion, as it would be too distressing for words. I actually think it ends on a rather optimistic and hopeful note though, which is all rather nice. There’s quite a lot of German in it, which makes me think that it’s reminiscent of his Berlin years in particular. I’m very fond of this song, although the video is rather creepy. I’m not really a fan of the whole imposing-people’s-faces-on-dolls thing, but I would expect nothing less from Bowie than a slightly creepy video. Plus the video itself is quite simple, which makes it a perfect accompaniment for the song. Thumbs up for Where Are We Now?!
Second single The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is a lot more upbeat, and I do appreciate a song that makes good use of parentheses. The video is similarly strange, but it does feature Tilda Swinton, so that’s fun. I do hate the beginning of it though, narrative music videos are always so awkward and the supermarket “life is nice” scene almost makes me cringe as much as David and Bing Crosby’s little chat about their children around a piano. It’s so unnecessary, the rest of the video would have worked just as well without that toe-curling moment, but I did enjoy seeing the different age versions of David and Tilda. As the Bowie camp are clearly big on their symbolism (according to their shoddy artwork), I’m going to take a moment to speculate that the song is actually a meaningful musing about the downside of fame and the disappointment of ‘stars’, felt by both the general public at large and the famous stars themselves. Perhaps Dave’s thinking that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when a man can’t even buy a sandwich without the media getting excited, or maybe I’m reading a bit too much into it all and it’s to do with nothing of the sort. Hey ho.
There are of course some particular highlights of the album. Title track The Next Day is a bit of an odd one because it sounds quite upbeat and almost cheerful, but if you listen to the lyrics it’s actually all a bit morbid. It’s nice and catchy though, there’s some funky guitar playing and the chorus is nice and assertive while just the right level of growly. (You Will) Set the World on Fire is another highly enjoyable track. It reminds me of something else, but I can’t quite put my finger on what. It almost sounds like it has a bit of a Duran Duran vibe to me, with the actual sound of David’s singing and the harmonies, and perhaps the particular beat. It sounds quite optimistic, and I like to pretend I’m almost being ordered by Bowie – you WILL set the world on fire! Valentine’s Day has a really lovely melody and is really very pleasing to listen to. It’s actually quite hard to listen to it without having an involuntary sway, which does become a little awkward if you happen to be listening to it on your music playing device at work. I was going to say that it seems a bit old-fashioned in a way, but I’ve decided that timeless is a more appropriate word. The melodies and the smooth intro could span the decades, and I think it would have been lovely to hear regardless of the decade you heard it in and the contemporary trends. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is just lovely, although obviously it’s also rather depressing, but there is something rather charming about a song that can be rather sad and yet can sound so pretty. The musical progressions sound delightful, the choir/backing singers are wonderful with their prolonged “oohs” and “dies”, and the strings really add beautifully to it, while the whole thing builds to a really pleasing finale. It all just works wonderfully and it really is a joy, despite actually being rather grim. This is definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album, it sounds so silly to describe it as being lovely, but it really is.
Other tracks include Love is Lost, which has quite a long intro before we finally reach the opening lyrics “It’s the darkest hour, you’re 22”. As a 23 year old, I can safely state that this lyric is actually a True Fact, which is in itself a rather depressing thought for me. There’s a lot of synth which is almost jarring at times, but the song seems to be about general dissatisfaction with life and so a few jarring synth chords are perhaps oddly appropriate. I’d Rather Be High has an enjoyable melody, although the lyrics are actually rather sombre and tell the story of a soldier fighting in the Second World War. The general sound of Boss of Me seems to be a bit thin, but it works because it means the focus is on the singing and the lyrics, with a fair amount of sax thrown in along the way. There is of course the obligatory trademark space-themed song in Dancing Out in Space. It has lots of slightly odd sound effects, but it’s a good track to dance to and has a fun chorus with even more fun intonation that makes it sound like every other line is a question – “something like religi-on?” etc. It just adds that little something that means I enjoy singing along even more. How Does the Grass Grow? Is quite a strange title for a song, although it fits quite well with the strange nature of the song itself. There’s lots of chanting of “blood, blood, blood” and even more “ya ya yas”, which has a tendency to remind me of that particular bit in Elton John’s Crocodile Rock. I think I do prefer Elton’s more fun and light-hearted take on the ya-yas/la-las, although I must admit How Does the Grass Grow? has itself grown on me the more I’ve listened to it. It does sound very ‘70s to me though, and I can imagine Bowie singing it in a catsuit and platforms (which is perhaps not entirely appropriate now, given his age and respectable nature).
To be honest, there are some tracks on the album that I’m not really that keen on. Dirty Boys has a pretty funky saxophone, but the sound of it’s almost grimy (if the sound of a saxophone can ever be described as grimy). As there is a saxophone, it would of course be foolish to bypass the opportunity for a sax solo, and Master Bowie is not a foolish man. There is a sax solo, but I sort of feel like it doesn’t really go anywhere, much like the song in general. Some of the lyrics are downright ridiculous, ‘I will buy a feather hat/I will steal a cricket bat’ being a prime example and, while it’s a very short track, I feel like if it went on any longer it would outstay its welcome. If You Can See Me bothers me a little because it has strange timings which make it seem a bit disjointed, and the lyrics are rather sinister (plus there’s a line about burning books which could never go down well with me). The outro’s also too long and is a bit too buzzy for my liking. Heat is the closing track on the ordinary non-deluxe version of the album, and I must admit I don’t really get it. The intro and the outro are both unnecessarily long, the lyrics are repetitive and are almost chanted rather than sung, nothing really happens, it doesn’t really go anywhere and, frankly, it’s all a bit weird. Actually, if I’m going to be brutally honest, it’s a bit of a snooze. In a way it seems a shame to use it as the closing track because it means the whole album just sort of tails away. Unless, of course, you happen to have opted for the deluxe edition with bonus tracks.
So, on to the tricky matter of bonus tracks. I say ‘tricky matter’ because I’m not quite sure what to make of them. I spent an extra two whole pounds (I think) to buy a deluxe version of the album complete with three bonus tracks, the longest of which, I’ll Take You There, was still a good twenty seconds shy of three minutes long, and one of which, Plan, was an instrumental. I don’t know about you, but I have a rather firm view on instrumentals. My view is that instrumentals are only appropriate if they can achieve one of two things: one, to serve as an extra build up to a particular track, thus adding a sense of gravity and anticipation, as demonstrated by Europe on their Last Look at Eden album where the instrumental track, Prelude, is almost an extension of the titular track; or two, where the track can sufficiently stand on its own as a piece of music which doesn’t feel like it’s lacking in vocals or any other additions, as demonstrated by Def Leppard’s Switch 625 or Whitesnake’s Belgian Tom’s Hat Trick. As far as I’m concerned, Plan achieved neither of those objectives, and as such should have been surplus to requirements. Nothing really happened, it was basically two minutes of droning. I know it’s only a bonus track, but is it too much to ask for the bonus tracks to be actual songs? So She is admittedly rather enjoyable with a nice hummable melody and it’s catchy enough, but it’s just so short and I spent an extra two pounds on this! And then we come to I’ll Take You There, and what a surprise that was! I can truthfully say that I’d happily have spent two pounds on this one track alone, so that balances out the bonus track confusion nicely. It’s one of the most upbeat and danceable songs on the whole album, and is so lively that it’s a positive joy! I can honestly say that it’s actually one of my favourite tracks of the album. I just can’t understand why it’s a bonus! It should have swapped places with Heat, that would have been a far more sensible decision in my book (although then I would have been even more resentful of the price of my bonus tracks).
There’s no denying though that this is a strong and, on the whole, thoroughly enjoyable album. Like many others, I was concerned as well as excited when I heard there’d be a new Bowie album, because everyone had such huge expectations that, as discussed earlier, it would have been altogether safer and perhaps more sensible to remain in retirement. But Bowie’s not one for picking safe options, and I for one am glad that he was brave enough to release The Next Day. After first hearing the album, it was clear to me that my excitement was fully justified. Okay, so there are some tracks that I’m less than enamoured with, but there are other tracks which more than make up for a few shortcomings. Besides, it wouldn’t be a Bowie album if it wasn’t a bit experimental, and it’s more than paid off if the sales figures are anything to go by. It’s already made it to number one in over forty countries, or a figure equally as ridiculously impressive, and I know that there will be people who see (or hear) things to love in tracks like Heat. After all, you can’t tell me that everyone instantly loved Space Oddity the first time they heard it, I’m sure there were plenty who thought old David was off his rocker. Perhaps he was a bit, and don’t we love him for it.
Track listing: 1) The Next Day, 2) Dirty Boys, 3) The Stars (Are Out Tonight), 4) Love is Lost, 5) Where Are We Now?, 6) Valentine’s Day, 7) If You Can See Me, 8) I’d Rather Be High, 9) Boss of Me, 10) Dancing Out in Space, 11) How Does the Grass Grow?, 12) (You Will) Set the World on Fire, 13) You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, 14) Heat. Bonus tracks: 15) So She, 16) Plan, 17) I’ll Take You There.