Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Man Who Fell to Earth Rises Again: David Bowie's 'The Next Day' Proves Well Worth the Wait -- Album Review

Album Review

David Bowie
The Next Day

In January 2004, I saw David Bowie in concert twice within three days, at the Rosemont Theatre. I would see him once again a few months later in Milwaukee.

Although at the time I was already a huge, longtime Bowie fan--I saw him in 1990 at Dodger Stadium and wanted to attend his 1983 shows supporting Let's Dance--it was around early '04 that I bought all of his albums I hadn't already owned and really started to delve into the depth of his greatness.

Like many, I imagine, who were too young to truly appreciate Bowie in the 1970s, for several years I was aware of his ever-changing personas, the Ziggy Stardust album and the rock radio hits--many on the ChangesOneBowie collection, the first album of his I owned--like "Space Oddity," "Changes," "Suffragette City," "Rebel Rebel," "Young Americans," "Fame," "Heroes" and "Under Pressure," his great collaboration with Queen.

But it wasn't until I made a point of exploring his full catalog that I discovered just how thoroughly brilliant many of his albums are, from early ones like Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane (and, of course, Ziggy) to Station to Station and what is known as the 'Berlin trilogy': Low, "Heroes" and Lodger.

Though those albums deserve to be heard in full, I made this Spotify playlist of "Less Showy Bowie" to show you what I mean:

OK, so in early 2004, perhaps more than ever, I was really into David Bowie. Although neither his 2002 album Heathen nor 2003's Reality set the world on fire, critically or commercially, I thought both were quite solid, really enjoyed him live and--like I had or would with The Kinks, The Who and Steely Dan--relished realizing that regardless of my vast fandom primarily via the famous songs, I really only knew the half of it.

Then in June of 2004, while on tour in Europe, Bowie had a heart attack. Following an emergency angioplasty, he seemingly survived sans any reports (that I saw) of his condition remaining grave. But other than a few television appearances over the next couple years, David Bowie disappeared.

From May of 2006 through his 66th birthday on January 8 of this year, there was no new music, no reports of anything in the works and excepting a shot of him at the premiere of son Duncan Jones' 2009 movie, Moon, no present tense photographs I could find on the internet.

On the morning of January 8, amidst some employment angst over a job I would eventually lose, I went to my home computer intending to post a video on Facebook saluting Bowie's birthday (rather than that of Elvis Presley, the same day). (See my 2011/2012 Bowie birthday blog post, with several song videos, here.)

But when I loaded Facebook, I saw the post at right.

Just after midnight, Bowie had shocked the world with news of a brand new song and video--"Where Are We Now"--and a forthcoming album, entitled The Next Day.

Especially as I found the song to be excellent in a subdued, slow-burning sort of way, it was one of the best musical surprises of my lifetime.

Bowie had resurfaced, seemingly healthy, with reports that he had secretly been recording songs for the past two years, but still very much Bowie.

No interviews. No tour announcements. No overblown appearance on the Grammy's.

Just high quality music--including the subsequent "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)--from one of the greatest artists the rock genre has ever produced, coming at a time when there is rather little new stuff that I think is any good, at least in a staying power sort of way.

So how's the new album?

The Next Day has arrived--actually last Tuesday--and it is terrific.

As pretty much every outlet in America--as shown in the Bowie Facebook post at left--and around the world has already conveyed, to some degree or other.

So I won't go through the new album song-by-song and tell you how Bowie's somewhat oblique lyrics pertain to "Heroes," other remnants of his past or his interest in English history.

Many others have provided this depth and insight, much better than I can.

What I will tell you is that I love The Next Day, not just because it sounds like the all too rare work of a great, professional musical artist demonstrating what that means, but because for a guy who hasn't put out a new album in 10 years, the whole thing--like "Where Are We Now"--just feels so beautifully unhurried.

Co-produced by Bowie and Tony Visconti, who did likewise for the Berlin trilogy--though Brian Eno is more famously noted as his collaborator on those albums--the new disc opens with the title track, which rocks pretty strongly and wouldn't seem out-of-place on "Heroes" or perhaps more so, Lodger.

But casual listeners, especially in this iTunes age of selective songs in lieu of cohesive albums, may find the slow dirge of track 2, "Dirty Boys," a bit boring.

Yet it is exactly what reminds one that at 66, after many thought he was terminally ill and/or professionally retired, Mr. Bowie is--still remarkably--doing exactly what he wants to do.

There are a number of upbeat-sounding songs that come at the tail end of the album--"I'd Rather Be High," "Dancing Out in Space," "How Does the Grass Grow?" and "(You Could) Set the World on Fire"--that, if sequenced earlier, could really get The Next Day off to a rollicking start, to better dazzle those without the patience to listen all the way through, or repeatedly.

Don't get me wrong; as is, The Next Day isn't a tough listen, it's just not front-loaded nor encompasses anything as accessible as, say, "Rebel Rebel" or "Let's Dance."

But I enjoyed it the first time I heard it in full, and several spins later am liking it even more.

At this point, I don't think it quite reaches the heights of "Heroes," Low or Lodger, Station to Station, Ziggy, Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, etc. But I'm guessing that the German trilogy albums weren't instantly to everyone's liking--they had no hit singles except "Heroes"--but all are now considered masterpieces that perhaps define Bowie even more than the hits or the costumes.

Many years down the road, I imagine The Next Day will continue to hold up quite well. If it isn't quite the finest moment in an extraordinary career, it's already one of the most welcome--and best--comebacks in rock history.
This is definitely an album worth owning--and I have bought the CD though I could hear it in full on Spotify--but if you want to listen first, here's your chance:

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