Simon Poulter of the excellent What Would David Bowie Do? blog salutes the magnificent return of his hero.
When What Would David Bowie Do? was conceived in a fit of pique one June morning in 2010, it was generally assumed that the object of its title was quietly enjoying retirement in New York, walking daughter Lexi to school and basking in the warm glow of marriage to the former supermodel Iman.
Sightings had been rare since 2004 when, towards the end of his Reality Tour, David Bowie underwent heart surgery. A guest spot with Ricky Gervais in Extras, a one-off show with David Gilmour, and a supporting appearance at the premiere of his director son Duncan Jones’ film Moon seemed to be about it. Even a photograph, last October, of Bowie near his Lafayette Street condominium, apparently out buying the papers, seemed nothing more than a rare sighting of a reclusive retiree.
On January 7 this year, the day before The Dame’s 66th birthday, nothing seemed stirring in Bowieland. The next day changed all that.
The Dame returns
Ever since the Brixton-born David Robert Jones released Space Oddity in the summer of 1969, cashing in on Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, the renamed David Bowie has, arguably, been the most talked about rock star of his generation. And I mean, talked about. I can’t think of another music icon – even Elvis – to have been so forensically debated. Madonna may have absorbed Bowie’s ability to evolve visually, but she is nevertheless dilettante in comparison.
Because, whichever version or angle of Bowie you choose to examine – folk-rocker, glam-rocker, funk-rocker, arguable godfather of punk, actor, drug-addled superstar, diva…the list is, actually, endless – no-one has commanded as much re-examination. Even with moments of misadventure – quasi-fascist salutes at Victoria Station, the disappearing-up-own-arse Glass Spider Tour, Tin Machine, flirtations with club culture, discussions with the Labrynth costume designer – Bowie has always been able to command maximum media interest.
So, when early on January 8, word starting spreading that Bowie had released a new single, gobs were universally smacked. When it emerged that he’d actually been working in complete secret for two years on an album or more’s worth of new material (the October photograph was actually taken outside the recording studio…), journalists and long-time fans alike started experiencing tremors of excitement…and fear.
Comebacks are rarely that good. The chasm between expectation and reality is usually perilously deep. It’s even worse when you have more than 40 years of work to be compared with. Thus, the conventional wisdom is that the Stones haven’t made a decent record since Exile On Main Street, and McCartney since Let It Be, which is like saying a stick man cartoon by Picasso on the back of a beer mat is “a bit crap” by comparison with his Guernica.
As for Bowie, his golden years, ho-ho, were behind him in the era of Ziggy, Young Americans and the Berlin trilogy, Low, Heroes and Lodger. The arrival, then, next week of Bowie’s first new album in a decade, The Next Day, should be met with trepidation. Much like the adage “never meet your heroes”, the grave concern is that it won’t be any good, that it will be some latter day Bowie knock-off, like more recent efforts by Bob Dylan, closer to self-parody.
That gorgeous single
When Where Are We Now? was released on January 8, the majority of journalists went into paroxysms of ecstasy that not only was The Dame back, back, back, but back with a song of melancholy beauty, or beautiful melancholy, and that if the subsequent album was anywhere as good, life as we know it will change for the better.
Other journalists were simply left gasping for air that Bowie should have been able to work in absolute secret for two years with producer Tony Visconti and a small group of musicians like bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, drummer Zachary Alford and guitarist Gerry Leonard, who formed the nucleus of Bowie’s group on The Reality Tour, without something leaking. After all, in this era of Twitter and celebrities posting photographs of themselves in all manner of private moments, it is virtually impossible not to know every last detail about, well, everyone.
There were, however, a few lone dissenters, professional curmudgeons who declared “meh…”, largely for contrarian effect, methinks. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, of course, and if that was genuinely their feeling, then they have a perfect right to accuse everyone else of praising the emperor’s new clothes.
The reality, however, of The Next Day, is that it is without doubt one of Bowie’s best albums. Ever.
“But he would say that, wouldn’t he” is, I know, your immediate reaction to that statement. But the truth is, it really is that good.
True, rationality is a scarce commodity when an icon like Bowie produces something new, lest he should produce something after such silence.
The best moments
The title track which opens the album is vintage Bowie. Grating guitars and boinking bass notes à-la Fashion introduce a song that sets the lyrical tone of the entire album, as Bowie – rather than looking back in wistful dotage, as some predicted it would be – looks towards a future dystopia. Bleak, that premise may be, but it’s also a damn good pop song, with the chorus “Here I am, not quite dying” providing as much a demonstration of Bowie’s sense of humour as a statement of his vitality. Take note, vendors of effluence pervading our TV screens on a Saturday night.
The job of rock star is largely about swagger. That, to be honest, is mainly what makes them a rock star to begin with. Bowie, one suspects, has always been an actor playing a rock star, applying a form of total theatre throughout his career. Dirty Boys starts with a jumpy, nervous sax-driven rhythm and a telephone-filtered vocal treatment before opening up into an Anthony Burgess-esque story of thuggery and feather-hatted yobs smashing up Finchley Fair with cricket bats. It’s hard to imagine One Direction doing anything similar anytime soon.
While Bowie has been away the cult of celebrity has shifted on its axis, as reality TV shows have turned non-descript fools into household names selling self-branded perfume. The Stars (Are Out Tonight) wryly addresses this with an imagined world that celebrities have actually taken over (“They burn you with their radium smiles and trap you with their beautiful eyes”). Given the amount of media attention the Kardashian family generate, it’s possible this may have already taken place, but on this sweeping song – released as the second single from the album – Bowie takes the notion of The Man Who Fell To Earth and applies it to celebrities – “dead ones and the living” suggesting that “Brad” (Pitt we assume) and “Kate” (Winslet?) are amongst us as aliens. And he does it with the sort of stonking mock braggadocio that made China Girl such a blast.
Within Bowie’s catalogue there are songs that make great stadium anthems, songs you can swing your pants to, songs you can rock out to and songs you can, you know, do the thing to. Love Is Lost is neither of these things. Instead, with its crisp, treated snare drum and bleed-in of heavy church organ chords, it is one of those Bowie songs that creeps up on you before attacking with a sharp lyric, this one about an arriviste individual whose “possessions are new” but whose “fear is as old as the world”.
When Where Are We Now? slipped in under the cover of radar in January, the incredulity of its unexpected appearance soon gave way to an excess examination. Like scientists scrutinising bacteria found in a small lump of space rock, marvelling at the possibility that this may be microscopic evidence of life elsewhere, Where Are We Now? was placed immediately in the petri dish.
Was Bowie dying? Was this really just a melancholy one-off to say farewell? Was it a mournful recollection of his days in Berlin with Iggy and Eno, recording the albums that would critically resurrect his career? As producer Tony Visconti explained in interviews, it turns out that this is the most downbeat of an otherwise upbeat collection of 14 tracks (17 if you buy the ‘deluxe’ version). It is, after repeated listens over the last six weeks (and I mean, repeated – on January 8 it was the only thing I listened to all day), one of the most beautiful songs The Dame has ever produced. One that ultimately uplifts, despite its gloomy premise. And, yes, it will be amazing to hear live. DB, please note.
Out Suedeing Suede
The clock is turned back almost to the beginning with the Hunky Dory-era feel of Valentine’s Day, one of those terrific vignettes Bowie is so adept at, the story of a quirky little sociopath with a “tiny face” and a “tiny heart” who spends his time being a bit of arse.
Bowie dives into his broad vocal spectrum for If You Can’t See Me, sounding like a Dalek in another song about a despotic nutjob and, possibly, a cross-dressing nutjob (“I could wear your new blue shoes, I should wear your old red dress”). It’s a frenetic, short song which threatens to drag Bowie back to his ill-advised late-’90s encounter with drum’n’bass, but mercifully stops short.
I’d Rather Be High is the most lary track on the album, and one that the Gallaghers will kick themselves over, with it’s Tomorrow Never Knows vibe and Champagne Supernova guitar. It’s an open, expansive song, the story of a soldier wishing he was anywhere but the desert battlefield he finds himself, “training these guns on those men in the sand”. Much of this album concerns itself with an imagined future of dictatorial chaos, but this track – of all – is the closest Bowie appears to get to commenting on the present, having last written anything only two years after his adopted hometown was shattered by airliners hitting the World Trade Center, and the Middle East being opened up for revenge in the aftermath.
Just because Bowie has spent the last few years out of the limelight doesn’t mean that he’s been living Miss Havisham-like in his New York apartment brooding. It’s quite possible that, when not doing schoolruns and picking up groceries, he’s been quite happily enjoying life. Being married to Iman helps, which might explain the loose enjoyment of Boss Of Me, another great pop song with the pure romantic hook of “Who’d have ever thought of it, who’d have ever dreamed, that a small-town girl like you could be the boss of me?”. Either that, or a very odd Bruce Springsteen reference.
Opening with the longest saxophone note since Lee Thompson’s on Night Boat To Cairo, Dancing Out In Space draws together two of Bowie’s longest thematic interests – space and alienation – in a boppy, finger-popping, early-’80s jig of a song that could easily have found its way onto Let’s Dance.
Making a reference, like that, to an earlier excerpt from the back catalogue is an ever-present danger in listening to The Next Day. Such is our affinity with Bowie’s style, Bowie’s sound and Bowie’s storytelling that there are throwbacks and references to so much of his 44-year career. None are necessarily intentional, or attempts at self-regarding pastiche.
With every new song on the album there is both familiarity and unfamiliarity: How Does The Grass Grow? is, lyrically, another vision of hell, but with a Broadway-camp “na-na-na-nah” chorus and the sort of tight, solid bass, guitar and drum performance that underpinned the Berlin trilogy.
Underpinned by the sort of power-chorded, riff-heavy guitar work that powered 1980s poodle rock, (You Will) Set The World On Fire harks back to New York in the 1960s and the hippy-dippy aspirations of the Greenwich Village folk set. While the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan may have been singing about peaceful revolution with acoustic guitars and harmonicas, Bowie hits out at the ill-faited idealism of the peace movement, presenting another view of modern hell, but from the perspective of a certain cynicism “I can hear the nation cry”.
The influence of Scott Walker
Taking it’s title from Heartbreak Hotel, Bowie takes a melodramatic tour through Scott Walker territory with the old-school ballad You Feel So Lonely You Could Die. It isn’t a happy song, calling up more imagery of a world-gone-wrong as the backdrop of story about a relationship-gone-wrong.
Walker’s influence makes another appearance with Heat, a short, almost coda of a final track of the ‘standard’ version of The Next Day, in which Bowie croons his way through a song about self-questioning, replete with Starman ch-ch-chang guitars, and a string arrangement so wigged out you half expect William Shatner to pop up, overacting his way through the spoken lyrics of Space Oddity. It is, it must be said, a very odd end to the album. But at 52 minutes in total length, The Next Day is a full and as nourishing a Bowie record as anyone could have hoped for.
It is a proper album. This is no collection of scraps that have been hanging around, but an album that, from start to finish, has purpose and meaning. There was so much to be fearful of. Mercifully, those fears were completely unfounded. Welcome back David. And thanks.