Oh my dear, it was like a honeymoon for David and Iggy. It was nauseating—one English asshole and one American jerk thinking they were gonna romance Germany while Germans sat there and laughed at them. They made me wanna puke. I can’t tell you how nauseated I was. I mean they spent all their time fighting over who could get the best looking drag queen.”
—Angela Bowie on David and Iggy’s 1976 jaunt to Berlin to record The Idiot
That quote was from Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and it always pops into my head when I think about David Bowie. It’s rare that a personal excerpt so perfectly aligns with our collective perception of a public figure, but there’s a nice symmetry here. Angela went on to say that trip was when a big part of her love for him died, explaining how the clueless vanity in a wildly different culture was nothing short of revolting to her. I’m sure many of us would have the same reaction, seeing a couple of rock stars gallivanting around in Berlin, pretending it’s 1920s Weimar Germany all over again. But my theory is, Angela finally saw what the rest of us already know on some level: David Bowie doesn’t really exist.
This is now clearer than ever. However, the idea, the movement of Bowie always has been around. He’s done a better job that anyone of making everyone feel like they’re falling in love with the flesh and blood of an alien surviving utter isolation, trying desperately to find a way just to fit in. The wandering loner—too beautiful for this world, not advanced enough to ever really realize this harsh reality. Somehow people found enough in that searing dislodgment to latch onto. Even cuts that should be effortlessly emotionally jarring to the listener like “Wild Is the Wind” or “Ashes to Ashes” were cloaked with a buzzing smoke-screen. As naked as those were, there was always something there keeping us out on some level.
I guess in many ways, Bowie just quite easily redefined beauty to people. Of course, all that Ziggy Stardust/Space Oddity nonsense was just an act to a large degree, catered to people who would rather feel like an apathetic life-pod from a foreign planet than look in the mirror and churn up their own happiness/sadness in a way that makes sense on an individual level, as hard as that may be. And hey, it worked. Bowie is constantly mentioned right along with ‘70s rock ‘geniuses’ Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Since then he hasn’t exactly gotten the last laugh, as he has alternated between disappearing from music completely and incredibly mediocre releases. But the point is, he’s still laughing right with us, even if the climactic cackle he was hoping to obtain with Reality never arrived.
That brings us to the present. Where was Bowie the last ten years? Simple question, but I find myself listening to The Next Day and trying to find answers. As you’ve probably gathered, I am not a diehard Bowie fan, but I did feel like I deserved some clarity. The bad news: this is an album only David Bowie could pull off. The good news: this is the record he should’ve made decades ago. If that had occurred, we could’ve rested easy once and for all. The force field is down, and the man truly does have nothing to say. Bowie fans could move on with their lives, instead of a lifetime connecting dots laid out by the Starman.
The Next Day cuts the bullshit to a minimum. Believe it or not, there is very little posturing here, this isn’t a masquerade of weird Bowieisms. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll album, filtered through some of his best and most innovative musical ideas. Take “Valentines Day” for example. We’re treated to a story about an introverted loner who just can’t seem to emerge from the suffocation brought on by a slew of lumbering brutes whose sole purpose is to crush the voice of the voiceless. It’s a driving, purposeful song from Bowie that finally holds sustained, tangible meaning; not only on a contemporary relevant one, but perhaps one of the only examples in recent memory that may, just may be pulling back the curtain a little bit.
Album opener “The Next Day” isn’t as good, but it’s close. Set up by an energetic push towards darkness, it’s the kind of song that Interpol should’ve been writing the last few years. And when Bowie moans “Here I am / Not quite dying / My body left to rot in a hollow tree”, we’re left with the startling realization that no matter what happens next, this will be Bowie’s saddest release.
Once I heard that lyric, everything sort of came together for me. Bowie has gotten old. His voice isn’t half of what it used to be (say what you want about the man, there were layers of beauty to be found in nearly every vocal offering he’s laid to record). He’s not nearly as relevant as he probably would like to believe either. But The Next Day isn’t a tragic offering because of these declines. It’s tragic because this is the sound and words of a man who has become self-aware only after 40-plus years of making music. The kicker? There is no ‘self’ to be aware of, but the entirety of this album is dedicated to this exact purpose.
It’s Bowie’s most truthful album. Of course this is because Bowie’s capacity for truth, or lies for that matter, disappeared a long, long time ago. The Next Day was an extremely difficult listen for me, as a lot of the same Bowie elements remained from his classic work: arrangements from the cosmos, angular guitar work that seems to arrive out of nowhere and never overstay its welcome, and through it all, his words that always make the listener feel like they are part of something bigger, more universal. But beyond all that, there is just an old man with a now shredded voice… trying to give us something to hold onto for just one goddamn time. Trying to release something real into the world. The problem with that is there’s nothing to release. For the life of me, I can’t recall an album so yearning for sincerity, yet so wildly incapable of mustering even the most basic human emotion. Maybe that part of him died for good in Berlin, we’ll never really know.
As a result of all this, put quite simply The Next Day is dull. It’s certainly not memorable, and unless you can find beauty in a 66-year-old man realizing he has spent his whole life without possessing even a shred of human condition in its most primal form, this is destined to be one of the hollowest releases in recent memory. For a fleeting moment (and I mean extremely fleeting), I flirted with the idea of The Next Day being an outright masterpiece, as Bowie set his whole life up for an album like this. We’ll definitely never see anything like this again; his body of work was just too unique/sustained to think otherwise.
But those thoughts were quickly dismissed. I’m not going to romanticize a ‘too little, too late’ situation. This is a bed Bowie has spent decades meticulously making, and he’s been rewarded heavily for it. Now he’s just an old fellow who is fighting against the current, and The Next Day is a brutal drowning. We’ll never really know David Bowie, and I liked it better when he never wanted us to know him either. At least then his reality could be whatever we wanted it to be, and vice versa. As it stands, that kid from “Valentines Day” ended up dying alone in a giant tree. In between his teenage years and that, who knows? And sadly, he’s done everything in his power to ensure we don’t really care. Move along folks, nothing left to see here.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article